Slovak dentists pulling patients from the West

While some tourists take the spa waters in Hungary others are heading to neighbouring Slovakia for a little tooth tourism. The country's dentists are finding that foreigners can fill the gap in their incomes without biting into their own budget. Anca Dragu reports:

The young dentist Monika Zelajova from a private practice in Bratislava smiles when asked about foreigners who come to have their teeth done in Slovakia.

"We have noticed an increase in the number of foreigners coming to have their dental treatment in Slovakia. They are from neighbouring countries including Poland but also from the UK, Holland, and Italy.

"Slovak dentists have already reached a high level of professionalism and many medical centers now have state-of-the-art equipment, so there is no difference between us and Western dentists in terms of service quality. We have the advantage of being much cheaper. The price difference depends on each dentist because some are more expensive than others if for example they don't cooperate with insurance companies or if they offer very complex services. Generally, Slovak dentists are by almost 50 percent cheaper than their colleagues in Western Europe."

For a filling Julian from Switzerland, living in Slovakia now for three years, paid 4% of the price he would have to pay back home. And since the dentist did a good job, he told his family about the possibility to get their teeth done for a better price:

"My mom, she is over 60 now, but sometimes she will just like hop on the bus in the evening in Zurich, take a 10 hour trip, then she goes to the dentist, goes a little bit to town and takes the bus home."

As we spoke to Julian's mother about her dental tourism to Slovakia, she mentioned the price of the treatment as its main advantage. Apart from that ...

"I have a lovely dentist, who does good work. Compared to Switzerland it is a plain office, she hasn't got the computer fashion, like in Switzerland those expensive tooth specialists, but I don't need that, I just want good work done."

And is it good work that she does for you?

"I think so. It's a very pleasant conversation also, she is an educated lady, it's wonderful!"

So, how often do you to see her?

"Whenever it is necessary. Lately, I haven't been there for half a year."

All together Mrs. Martin has traveled to Slovakia to get her teeth done approximately 5 times, in those 3 years. A return plane ticket from any European capital costs approximately 100 euro and a night in a hotel takes another 30-40 euro out of the visitor's pocket. However, it is still worth the trip. Although Bratislava is very accessible, traveling for a dentist's appointment can be tiring.

"This gets a little hard sometimes. But if you don't go in high season it is better. I go by bus, because the bus is the cheapest. If you fly of course, you have to have something more important to be done, but I think you can have a nice trip and at the same time, you have your teeth fixed. I mean there is a lot of sightseeing you can do while you have to wait - let's say for the cap to be done, or a bridge. I haven't had a bridge done yet."

Mrs. Greta Martin found a dentist who speaks English. And although not all Slovak dentists are fluent in English, or German, dentist Monika Zelajova says customers have no reason to worry because local doctors and nurses can be very innovative in working around the language barrier:

"When treating patients we use English and German and when we run out of words, we simply use body language. French customers are the most difficult to deal with in terms of communication because they rarely speak any other language but French."

Although we know that dental tourism to Slovakia is increasing, there are no specific data on how many foreigners come to Slovakia for medical or specifically dental treatment. Despite this, does this migration of Western European patients to practices in Slovakia worry their dentists back home? Doctor Dietmar Osterreich, the vice president of the German Federal Chamber of Dentists says his colleagues have already started to lay out strategies to fight competition from Eastern European dentists.

"Of course we can't stop patients going abroad but it is our duty to inform them about the potential risks of such tourism, without making negative advertising for our colleagues abroad. Generally, dentists play the card of loyalty because people tend to trust more somebody who has been their family doctor for many years. They also underline their qualification."

Apart from not knowing the doctor, the possible language barrier and few hours of traveling, what could be the risks of going to have your teeth fixed abroad in the opinion of German dentists? First - talking from her own experience - is Mrs. Greta Martin:

"So far I had a few emergencies, which I had to have done in Switzerland. I am over sixty and troubles really start, so that's the bad stuff if you go so far. If you have an emergency, you still have to have somebody around who does that work."

Doctor Dietmar Osterreich: "First of all you may need to travel abroad more often, than you might have originally thought especially in the case of teeth implants when some additional treatment may be necessary. Then in case of malpractice the local law is applied and not the German one so it could get very complicated and costly especially if the treatment was covered partially by a German health insurer. The biggest loss for Germans is that when our patients go abroad their contributions to health insurance are also spent abroad and invested there."

"I don't think everybody is willing to take a ten hour trip to take care of their teeth, but for whoever doesn't mind the time, they're going to be saving some money and their teeth will be pretty well looked after."

... concludes Julian Martin. Dental tourism has its pros and cons. And although price in Eastern Europe is a big motivation for many, so far it seems it is not causing a massive influx of patients from Western Europe.