A surge in New Zealanders travelling overseas for dental treatment has dentists worried and “picking up the pieces.”

Research conducted by The University of Otago has found that New Zealand dentists are increasingly having to provide remedial treatment where things have gone wrong for “dental tourists” who travel abroad for dental work.

Overseas travel for dental treatment is said to be the most prevalent form of medical tourism internationally with people from high-income countries seeking treatment in low-income countries.

Each year about 40,000 to 50,000 patients from the UK seek dental care abroad and increasingly, it is becoming a phenomenon in New Zealand too.

The research suggests that typically New Zealanders seek dental treatment abroad because it is cheaper and they can also holiday in chosen destinations.

However, while for some the treatment is successful and is combined with a satisfying tourist experience, for others the treatment fails and dentists back home are left to fix the work.

“Cheaper options at own risk”

Lumino Ponsonby’s Dr Tony Dey says his practice has seen a general increase in people seeking cosmetic dental treatments over the past few years.

“A lot of people we see want an improved smile, perhaps due to the culture of the selfie and Instagram.”

“People are looking off shore options – for cheaper offers,” he says.

Dr Tony Dey, lead Dentist at Lumino Ponsonby Dental.

Tony spoke to Mike Hosking from Newstalk ZB saying he’s seen plenty of patients who have been off-shore for dental work, which needed fixing.

“This week alone I had a lady come to me with some off-shore work that had completely failed, she was basically missing two front teeth.

“We’ve had to put all that back together for her, obviously at her own cost.”

“She understood that she’d taken a risk and she would have been better off having her work done here.”

Tony says that at the end of the day there is a variety of care provided everywhere.

“There will be different grades of care wherever you are, but heading overseas is quite risky, especially around your ability to go back, can you go back and see that dentist if you have any problems?”

Tony adds that all treatment done in New Zealand is covered by ACC, “however ACC isn’t going to cover your off-shore dental work.”

Otago study: Dentists concerned about quality of work

The University of Otago survey of 337 New Zealand dentists in 2016 showed most (96%) had encountered dental tourists at least once or twice a year, usually because they required remedial treatment.

Dentists identified a range of issues arising from their patients receiving treatment abroad.  The most important issue was a lack of follow-up maintenance and a lack of availability post-treatment. About half of the respondents identified lack of treatment planning and lack of treatment records to be issues.

Many dentists were concerned that patients are unaware of the poor quality of work often being carried out. “Patients are unaware of the poor quality of the work they receive and the difference in standard of care compared to New Zealand dentistry. Patients are often over-treated and inappropriately treated with irreversible damage to their teeth and no apparent discussion or awareness of treatment options,” another dentist said.

Published recently in the journal of Tourism Management, the research was carried out by Associate Professor Brent Lovelock from the Department of Tourism, Senior Research Fellow Dr Kirsten Lovelock from the Department of Public Health and Faculty of Dentistry Professor Karl Lyons.

Thailand was the most commonly noted country of treatment, with nearly 90% of dental patients having been treated there, followed by India and Indonesia.

While about half of the dentists acknowledged dental tourism provides access to affordable dental treatment, very few (6%) felt it enhances dental health outcomes for their patients and even fewer (1.9% ) would recommend it to their patients. A considerable number (21.8%) agreed that dental tourism should be discouraged due to its negative impact upon New Zealand’s dental healthcare system.

The most common type of treatment sought abroad was crowns, while implants and bridges were other commonly observed treatments.

New Zealand Dental Association Chief Executive Officer Dr David Crum says dental tourism exists and will appeal to a small sector of New Zealanders.

“It comes with risks most often related to quick care supplied over a very short duration by a practitioner unknown to the patient.”

Most often the dental care required is at the advanced, and more expensive, end of the spectrum, and often not discovered to be poorly implemented until months later after the patient has returned home, Dr Crum says.

The New Zealand Dental Association continues to believe patients are best served by establishing a long-term care relationship with a dentist who meets mandatory New Zealand standards in their own community.