Special Report: Medical Tourism

By: Erica Rakow Email
By: Erica Rakow Email

A new group of tourists are packing their suitcases and heading to other countries, not for the travel but for non-emergency medical and dental procedures. Why? It's all about money.

Fonda Pulliam, a Panama City resident, needed two crowns. A local dentist told her it would be at least $2,400, a price that made Fonda consider putting it off.

"I was really depressed because my husband wasn't working at the time. So I knew I had to do something," said Fonda Pulliam.

Some research turned up Dr. Alberto Coto, who said he'd do the work for $750. The only problem: Dr. Coto was in Costa Rica.

"That was like a no-brainer. My next call was to Jet Blue," said Pulliam.

Fonda ran into no problems combining a vacation with a trip to the dentist. She had other work done and told her friends. So far, a couple dozen friends have visited Dr.Coto.

"As a result of going there in a span of two years and four trips, we became friendly with the dentist and he did something that I’ve never heard of a dentist doing before. He took us to dinner with his family twice; have me a birthday party on my 80th birthday," said Panama City resident, Tom Hails, who went to Dr. Coto.

Tom Hails enjoyed saving money, too. And more intricate procedures done in Costa Rica saved even more.

"The procedure for the sinus lift, 10 years ago was $15,000 in St. Petersburg. There, the doctor did the sinus lift for $1,500," said Judy Pettit who also went to Dr. Coto.

"We do works and treatments that takes like years or many months in the U.S. and many visits, we are able to do in 5 days," said Dr. Alberto Coto.

If you're questioning the safety and risks involved, you're not alone.

"Somebody will have something done and then come back and have a problem and no one to go back to see. So that is many of the problems we come across," said Dr. Tara Griffin with Emerald Coast Dental Spa.

But Dr. Coto says that's not a deal breaker.

"We have 100% warranty so if something happens to the patient, we will invite patient to come back here ASAP and he doesn't have to pay anything. We will cover 100% of the expenses," said Dr. Coto.

Many americans believe that doctors in the United States have better training and equipment.

"The Board of Dentistry, especially to practice in the state of Florida, you know you go through a certified dental school and pass your board examinations in order to practice here. They don't have the same standards that we have in the U.S.,” said Dr. Griffin.

Dr. Coto says like many doctors in Costa Rica, he did part of his training in America. Dr. Coto spent time training at Jackson Memorial hospital in Miami. He says his equipment is equivalent to what's used here. Still, experts say if you're considering medical tourism, you should carefully research the doctor and locale. For many medical tourists, though, there's an overriding concern.

"Many things are cheaper outside of the U.S. and dental work is one of them," said Tom Hails.

Experts say the most popular destinations for medical tourism are Costa Rica, Turkey and Thailand. Other hot spots are India and Saudi Arabia.

The higher the cost of the procedure in the United States, the more money you can save by taking it offshore. For example, heart bypass surgery in the Southeastern United States can be about $144,000. In Thailand, it's about $22,000.

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