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Dental Care In Costa Rica—A Real Life Story

The Half-Price Dentist Of Costa Rica

Costa Rica was first in the Americas to fully embrace the concept of medical tourism and has a government-backed marketing campaign to push it to the forefront. Here, you can get a knee replaced, have heart valve surgery, get your tummy tucked or your bum lifted—all neatly bundled with round-trip airfare and a vacation at the beach—for a fraction the cost in the United States. Everyone brags about the service, the quality of care, and the amount of time the doctor or dentist spends with you. But is it always so picture perfect?

Four days before our final due diligence trip to Costa Rica, my girlfriend Kristie lost a filling. While we were here to sign the purchase agreement on our place, she lost another small one. (I should add here that Kristie hates the dentist. She takes care of her teeth religiously on her own time, but a fondness for sticky sweets has left her teeth in poor repair.)

We’d heard all the stories and decided to find a dentist to do a quick fix while we were in town. We checked out the recommended dental office of “Dr. V” and found the staff were nice and had all the right equipment, and they had an opening in two days.

On the appointment day, a miserable Kristie turned up for the dentist to perform an oral exam, take bite-wing X-rays of the large filling, and find there was enough damage to warrant a crown. After cleaning up the teeth, removing what was left of the filling, and drilling out the underlying cavity, the dentist gave us two options for the damaged tooth: Kristie could get it fixed on our return to the States, or our new Tico buddy could do a temporary crown that would last a few months until our full-time move. We opted for Dr. V’s temporary crown. The cost for the whole day? Just US$200.

Seven months later, living full-time in Costa Rica, Kristie had another tooth that her dentist back home said needed a core and a crown. The quote she got in the United States was US$1,200—enough motivation for us to return to our friendly Tico dentist. Dr. V could fit her in as early as the next day. Since Kristie needed at least three days to psych herself up for the procedure, we postponed it until after a weekend at the beach and some cold beer on her tooth to remind her how bad she needed the work done.

I dropped Kristie off at 2 p.m. and was told they should be a little more than an hour. Dr. V is professional and well-trained, but sometimes days go sideways… More than halfway into the drilling, the water reservoir ran out of water. When the assistant refilled it, suddenly there was no water coming out of the drill to cool and lubricate the tooth. The doctor played with it a bit, got the water running, and the drilling recommenced. But when he stopped drilling, the water continued to flow, and Kristie got the squirt-gun all over her as both dentist and assistant tried to make it stop.

This commenced a long period of fiddling and tinkering. Turns out there was a problem with an inner switch. Meantime, Kristie had a crater the size of Poás Volcano and more to be rooted out. She was finally told the drilling must go on but the water would keep running as long as the machine was running. She consented. Three times she had to signal “time out” when she felt she was being drowned. Finally, just after the two-hour mark, the drilling was complete.

Then the temporary crown had to be put in. The tooth was filled and Kristie bit down for 10 minutes to get a good casting. The doctor pulled it out, cleaned it up, and made sure it was a good fit. He then asked the assistant for the “rapid adhesive.”

Oops…they were all out of the good stuff. It was now 5 p.m., and the other adhesive takes at least 30 minutes to cure. They decided to finish the job the following day when the rapid adhesive could be rounded up. Meantime, a wet Kristie was told not to eat on the problem side of her mouth. The quote this time was US$545—less than half what she’d have paid in the United States.

Kristie is not looking forward to having the permanent crown fitted. But the temporary is great, she has no pain, and Dr. V is such a perfectionist and took so much time explaining everything, she still feels good about her experience.

The real question is, for half price (or less), how much are you willing to put up with?

Scot Cave

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