2008 Contest Shortlist

Getting Dental Work Done in the Philippines

Get teeth sorted and travel at the same time.

Dentists have a tough job. They’re expensive, universally disliked, have to spend each working day staring into complete strangers’ mouths while being tormented by foul breath, and little kids cry just at the sight of them. If it weren’t for the Porsches and BMWs many dentists seem to be getting around in these days, I could almost feel sorry for them.

Until recently, I’d always believed that I had excellent dental health. I had a couple of fillings, nothing more. Then, a dentist took an x-ray of my teeth – and things changed. “You’ve got some pretty major decay,” was closely followed by the usual accusations dentists like to throw at people: you don’t clean your teeth properly, there’s too much sugar in your diet (hey, I do like my Southern Comfort & Coke) and so on. No matter how old you are, dentists have a unique way of making you feel like a child again.

The quote to get all the dental repairs done was exorbitant. I even got a second opinion, with one dentist quoting $2500 for a root canal with a 50/50 chance of saving the tooth. I politely said I would think about it, while silently thinking, “And you can shove it up your arse as far as I’m concerned.” Would you pay $2500 to get your car fixed if there was only a 50/50 chance of the problem actually being rectified? I know I wouldn’t.

I had read about the burgeoning medical tourism industry but had never really thought about it myself. I was a fit and healthy male in my late twenties, so I had never really needed to think about it. But the ridiculous quotes from Australian dentists made an overseas dental tourism sojourn a viable and attractive option. My train of thought went something like this:

1. Australia has a critical shortage of dentists. Bloody government, not covering dental work under Medicare and failing to train enough dentists to meet demand.

2. If I went overseas, this would lessen demand on Australian dentists, therefore freeing resources for people who need dental work and cannot afford to go overseas to get it done.

3. Most dentists in Australia are foreign anyway, so what difference would it make if I went overseas to get the job done and pay those overseas dentists in their own currency at a substantially discounted rate? (The Australian dollar then went down against the US dollar by about 30%, which is karma for you)

So with that reasoning in mind, I began to research. I knew a lot of people went to Thailand for dental work, and there was always the option for breast enhancement and gender reassignment should I desire it. However, being a non-conformist type and wanting to get away from the tourist trail, I researched other destinations. I had been saving for a trip to Eastern Europe and discovered Hungary has quite a large dental tourism industry, but I wanted somewhere close to Australia – a place I could return to and complain if something went wrong.

I eventually settled on the Philippines. The appointment with the dentist itself was organised through an agent in Australia, but I did everything else, such as organising flights and accommodation, myself – which was the way I liked it. I settled on the Philippines because it wasn’t a hugely popular tourist destination, the Spanish had ruled the place for a couple of hundred years (I like the Spanish – their food, their style, their maritime history and their invention of the siesta) and because pretty much everyone speaks English, meaning less margin for dental error.

My parents advised against it, but then, both of my parents have full dentures, so I decided they probably weren’t the best ones to give advice. My father told me in quite a serious tone that people steal your organs in countries like the Philippines and I might wake up with a missing kidney. I told Dad I was pretty sure I would return home with all organs intact.

I conducted some background research on the dental clinic in Manila and even did reference checks. Having worked in the employment industry, I knew how important it was to be thorough. The only negative comment I found was on the website of a white supremacist group, although none of their members had actually been to the dental clinic in question.

The clinic was in the Makati business district of Manila. I decided to stay at the Great Eastern Hotel. There are two Great Eastern Hotels, one in Quezon City and one in Makati. The Great Eastern Hotel in Makati is in a bit of a red light district and cost approx $45 per night. I could have found cheaper places to stay outside of Makati but the Great Eastern Hotel was within walking distance of the clinic, and the last thing I wanted was to deal with dodgy taxi drivers if I was in pain from my teeth.

The clinic was in a large, multi-story medical plaza. A few locals commented it was an expensive place, and another Australian I met said a lot of QANTAS pilots go to this particular dentist when they’re in town. That sounded good to me.

My first appointment consisted of a clean and polish, an examination for cavities and a panoramic x-ray. The dentists commenced with the restorations (fillings) and root canals the next day. The clinic’s staff spoke in Tagalog amongst themselves, but always in English to me. Even when they were speaking Tagalog, though, I could pick up most of the terminology – “Class 1 Cavity,” “Class 5 Cavity,” “Class 3 Cavity” and so on. The initial examination was far more thorough than what I had experienced several months previously at the Australian dentist.

A series of almost daily appointments followed. I’d never had a root canal done before. They are not a pleasant experience, but I felt little to no pain after the anesthetic wore off. That might have been thanks to the painkillers the dentist prescribed for me, but I wasn’t going to stop taking them and find out. The senior dentist at one stage said the root canal on the bottom molar she performed was ‘very complicated’ (there was an existing infection), so I was very happy when it was over.

There were a few things I had to get used to at the Manila clinic. The last thing you want to hear when you’re lying on your back with your mouth open in a third world dental clinic (or having any medical procedure done) are the words “Uh-oh.” This happened for the first time when the dentist was taking an impression of my gum and had a bit of difficulty removing the mold. My imagination was starting to conjure up images of the mold being drilled off in the ER of a Manila hospital, but it eventually came away and all was fine. It took me a little while to become comfortable with the fact that the expression “Uh-oh” did not mean that something had gone terribly wrong, rather that there was something that needed a slight correction.

It also took a little while to get used to the dentist singing while she worked. The radio was playing whenever I visited the clinic – a mixture of English and Filipino love songs – and the dentist would quietly sing along. I noticed she stopped whenever she was doing something that required a lot of concentration. The older senior dentist didn’t sing at all while she did my root canals, and I was kind of happy about that.

Now, let’s get one thing straight: Manila is a depressing place. I coined it The City of Cockroaches and Unidentifiable Bad Smells quite early on. The Makati area could be the CBD of any other major city in the world, but once you get out of Makati you realise just how tough and crap life must be for those living in Manila. The poverty is appalling, although what is perhaps even worse is the unequal distribution of wealth. The city is also hard up for tourist attractions. Intramuros, Rizal Park and Manila Bay are okay, but in my opinion they aren’t worth the 40c train ride from Makati to see them. There’s a reason the sunsets over Manila Bay are so beautiful… it’s called pollution!

I had originally planned to spend no more than week in Manila and then explore the rest of the archipelago, but one naughty infected tooth (the result of an Australian dentist’s botched attempt at a restoration) didn’t want to heal, so it was antibiotics for me. My life entered a sort of limbo, wandering the upscale shopping malls of Greenbelt and Glorietta during the day when I wasn’t at the dentist, haunting Internet cafés and trying to avoid the lady-boys on P Burgos Street at night. I managed to get away for a couple of day trips – one to Taal Volcano and another to Avilon Zoo (which I recommend) – but I was becoming a long-term guest at the hotel.

It was a relief to have the crown placed on my bottom tooth and the bridge installed on my upper set of teeth to replace the tooth I had extracted a month before coming to Manila. So, about a dozen fillings, three root canals, a crown and three-piece bridge (as well as the sundries, such as x-rays and oral examination) came to $3000, although the bridge accounted for $1000 of that. I found the dentists to be professional, thorough and compassionate, and wouldn’t hesitate to return (mind you, if all my teeth unexpectedly fall out in the next six months I’ll be sure to let you know…)

My only regret is that I spent 25 of my 28 days in Manila. I did manage to fly down to the island of Bohol and have a great time there for a couple of days, but it ended far too soon. I had never really been interested in visiting the Philippines before heading over there to get my teeth fixed, and had said I wouldn’t return. Now I want to return, just to explore what the Philippines has to offer after you escape Manila. The senior dentist told me to return for a check-up the next time I visit the Philippines, and you know what? I will.

Jamie McGraw