The words “vacation” and “dentist” do not usually go together unless a toothache crops up in the midst of one’s travels.
However, as many as one percent of the 3.45 million foreigners visiting Israel annually are “medical tourists” (there are no available statistics specifically for dental tourists) who plan a vacation around needed medical or dental work. That number has doubled since 2006, as the economic downturn has spurred growth in medical tourism worldwide.
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Medical tourists are seeking care that is cheaper than in their home country, without sacrificing quality. And if they can do it in an interesting place, all the better.
“Many tourists, Jewish and Christian, yearn to visit Israel, visit the holy places and discover the wealth of historical and biblical sites,” says Dr. David Vinegrad, a London-trained dentist who sees many North American and European patients in his clinics in Arad and Ramat Hasharon. “By coupling good quality dentistry and the visit of a lifetime, they get the best of both worlds.”
Vinegrad fell into dental tourism more than a decade ago, as foreigners looking for an Israeli dentist came upon his English-language website or visited his clinic in Arad for emergency care while on holiday at the Dead Sea.
He is hardly the only one. Israeli dentists are listed on many of the Internet sites that arrange treatment for foreigners, such as Treatment in Israel, Israel Concierge & Services and Dental Tourism Hub. The site IsraMedica, run out of New York, reveals that Israeli dentists can offer procedures ranging from simple tooth extractions to complex oral reconstructive surgery.
A dentist who speaks your language
Dr. Daniel Beris of the Jerusalem Clinic on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel says the clinic got involved in dental tourism about three years ago. Dental tourists can lodge at the kibbutz’s resort hotel, though Beris says many visiting patients – about one per month — have family in the area.
“The whole field of dental tourism is growing worldwide because of the big disparity among different countries regarding costs of treatments,” the Australian-trained dentist tells ISRAEL21c.
“Israel is a unique case because we haven’t got a land border where people can pop over, but a large number of people worldwide want to travel to Israel for vacation and want to take advantage of the price differential and the fact that dentistry here is considered very advanced according to Western standards.”
Patients prefer a dentist who speaks their language, adds Beris, and that has led to clinics that cater specifically to Russian, French or “Anglo” dental tourists.
The English-speaking niche is the focus of Tour & Smile, a business launched in 2006 by Mik Lasry, who lived in Miami for 10 years.
While living abroad, he needed dental implant work estimated at $24,000 over a 12-month period. Instead, he got the treatment done in Israel for $11,000 in a much shortened time span. And along with his new teeth, he had a new business idea.
Lasry discovered that although dental tourism accounts for the largest number of medical travelers to countries such as Hungary, Peru, Mexico, India and Turkey, Israel was not a major destination and he wanted to change that. Today, about half of Tour & Smile’s clients are European and the rest are North American.
At least half his clients are Christians. As one Danish man wrote after using the service: “I have always wanted to visit Israel and Tour & Smile made it possible. The dental work I needed was very expensive in the US but it could be done for half the price in Israel. This opened the door not only to get great dental care but also for me to tour Israel.”
Like Lasry, dental tourists can save as much as 60% off the cost of implants, but the catch is that the work requires more than one visit.
“A lot of people need very complicated treatment that involves two or three trips to Israel, but if they’re coming anyway to see relatives, it works out,” says Vinegrad. “And I make every effort to get the work done quickly.”
The three dentists who partner with Tour & Smile use a technique called “immediate loading,” where a patient gets implants with functional temporary crowns and can eat solid foods 24 to 48 hours after the procedure, says Lasry.
The savings are often worth the extra schlep for those needing major work. Lasry does the math: “Eight implants in each jaw will cost $50,000 to $90,000 in the US, while in Israel it will cost $15,000 to $17,000.”
Every year, he shepherds 50 to 70 visitors through implants, root canals and crowns. The volume allows him to negotiate special rates from his partner dentists, from whom he gets a commission that serves as his fee.
Individual dentists and clinics offering services to dental tourists generally do consultations via Skype or phone, sometimes charging a fee for a detailed treatment plan that is deductible from the final bill.