Medical Tourism: Safe, Simple, and Shockingly Cheap

My first experience with overseas treatment was A+

I love my dentist. He’s a family friend, and a visit to his office on Staten Island, where I am from, is an easy and pleasant experience. I’m not one of those people who hates the drilling and the poking and the scraping. It’s not my favorite activity in the world, but a dental cleaning is just one of those things you’ve got to do, like paying your taxes or replacing the odd broken pipe — not always fun, but always necessary. Or else. In matters of the mouth, dare you not and you’ll risk an unpleasant smile, halitosis, and future gum disease. Now in my forties, I realize how much maintenance the human body actually requires.

My semiannual cleaning is usually quick and painless. The price tag, however, is never fun. My last cleaning cost nearly $300. Getting your smile sparkling and pretty can also cost a pretty penny. Yes, I have insurance, but I have yet to meet a dentist who actually takes it. I have gotten too used to paying for dental work as part of my grooming routine. And it’s expensive. It is no wonder that, when I was a kid, my mom’s go-to reason for why we seldom took a family vacation was “I have three kids with braces.”

A few weeks ago, I was prepping for my first trip since “The Before Times,” and after a year solo at home in my New York City apartment, it was time for a good old “grooming day” — haircut, manicure, pedicure, and dental cleaning. I was on a tight timetable, though, so a trip to Staten Island was not in the cards. I booked an appointment near my home in Manhattan, at a place called Dentl Bar, a cool, mod-styled center that claims to be New York City’s “first walk-in dental bar” and promises quick concierge-like dental services and “pricing made simple.” Well, pricing was simple. It was $275 for a cleaning. No thanks.

So I left on my trip to Montenegro with a new buzz cut and refreshed feet and nails, but I decided to put a pin in the dental cleaning until I got back. The trip was personal—I went for love; more on that another time—but a good toothbrush scrubbing with Tom’s of Maine would have to suffice. What I soon discovered was that there are countless reasons to fall in love with Montenegro, the small ex-Yugoslavia gem that is the size of Connecticut. The water is crystal clear. The people are warm and welcoming. And you can swim and ski in a matter of hours. The best reason? A dental cleaning is $25.

It seems Tim Ferriss was right about medical tourism. (I first heard the term in his book The 4-Hour Workweek.) Because of the oddities of the global economy — and because America is so damned expensive — it is often cheaper to get certain medical services abroad. Personally, I am not sure I would board a plane for the express purpose of dental work, but it was surely a bonus to an incredible trip. At the particular dental clinic I visited in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, a cleaning cost 20 euro (€). For the price of the travel pillow I bought at JFK Airport, a Balkan dentist spent a half-hour polishing up my pearly whites.

The service was as safe and painless as back at home, but the price list was shocking. We have grown so accustomed to paying ridiculous costs for our medical services here in the United States that I was suspicious there was some huge catch. (I was assured that there was not.) Had I wanted to spend the afternoon in the dentist’s chair, replacing my caps would have cost €30 each. Tooth whitening: €150. The most expensive thing on the dental menu was braces: €500 to €1,000. Yes, you read that correctly. Braces would have cost the same as my plane ticket to Europe.

My trip was full of pleasant surprises: gorgeous coastal towns, fully functioning medieval villages, a coffee culture free of Starbucks. But the cheap cost of my toothy touch-up was so unexpected that I have started planning my next dental adventure. Should I get my molars pulled? A root canal? Veneers? The possibilities are endless with a passport and a new boyfriend who can translate “porcelain crown” into Montenegrin.

Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21 million readers. Follow him on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

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