People in the UK are travelling abroad for dental care as treatment closer to home becomes increasingly inaccessible.
Nine in 10 practices in England are not offering NHS appointments to new adult patients amid chronic underfunding and the pandemic. Cuts to funding over the last decade mean that NHS dentistry would require an additional £880m to return to 2010 levels, according to the British Dental Association.
Meanwhile, patients are also choosing to go abroad for dental work such as implants, which are not offered routinely on the NHS, and cost thousands of pounds done privately.
Here, four patients discuss travelling overseas for dental care due to costs and being unable to obtain treatment locally.
‘His whole face was swollen’
Adriana Clark, 38, had dental work done in Egypt after being unable to get an appointment this year in Nottingham, either on the NHS or privately. Clark, who teaches at a university, recently got two fillings and a bridge fitted by a dentist in Ismailia while visiting her husband’s family. She had been trying to get an appointment for the fillings since January.
Meanwhile, her husband had been unable to access care for two months for a severe dental infection. “It’s been impossible to get an appointment,” she says. Clark describes a cycle of calling 111; being given the number of a practice; being told they weren’t accepting patients; and to call 111. Meanwhile, he was suffering. She said: “He had an infection so big that his eyes closed – his whole face was swollen.” He was eventually given an emergency extraction by a dentist they knew.
Clark paid £10 for two fillings at a dentist’s surgery in Ismailia; an eight-tooth bridge set her back £350. “Done privately in the UK, it would probably have cost £4,000-£5,000,” she says. “I don’t think I would go to the dentist [in the UK] unless I had to. Dentists are heavily understaffed – it’s the system, not down to individual clinics.”
‘It gets so bad that painkillers don’t help’
When 28-year-old Dessi began suffering from toothache two years ago, she rang up all the dentists in her London borough that said they worked with NHS patients. In what has become a familiar story to people across the country, none were accepting NHS patients. “It was just impossible. I still haven’t had the tooth fixed,” she says, adding that there’s “a big hole” in it and it will probably need to be extracted. “If food touches it, the pain gets so bad that painkillers don’t help.”
Private treatment is out of the question for the compliance professional, who says the bulk of her income goes on rent and bills. Dessi, who has lived in the UK for 10 years, has extended her trip this month to see family in Bulgaria in order to get treatment. She says she previously paid less than £50 for a check-up, X-ray and extraction in Bulgaria; she was quoted hundreds of pounds for the same work by a private dentist in the UK. “I spend half my time back home attending to my teeth,” she says. “I need to address it and it’s not going to happen here.”
‘I just wish I had done it sooner’
Britons are also travelling abroad for treatments not routinely available on the NHS, such as dental implants. After David Watkins, a 54-year-old coach driver in Pontypridd, Wales, had his final two molars removed after a dental infection in 2021, his dentist advised him he would need dentures. “I freaked – I said, no, I’m not ready for dentures yet,” he says. He had a consultation with an implant specialist who quoted him £3,500 an implant. “There was no way I was going to do that.”
Watkins looked into his options for treatment abroad and settled on going to a clinic in Istanbul to get his teeth “all done, once and for all”. For two extractions, 10 dental implants, a bone graft and 28 crowns, as well as a seven-day stay in a hotel, Watkins paid about £7,000 – a fraction of the price he would have paid in the UK. He had the implants in May and will return in November for the crowns. He felt nervous before he went, but thought: “What have I got to lose? If I do nothing, I’ll get dentures.” He was impressed with the treatment. “My teeth have been the achilles heel of my life – I just wish I had it all done sooner,” he says.
‘Dentistry abroad is fine – as long as nothing goes wrong’
But treatment abroad carries significant risks, as Paul* learned when he had an implant fitted poorly in France. The self-employed 48-year-old had it done in July 2020 during a work trip, as he was unable to get an appointment in London amid Covid restrictions.
“Everything went well until about six months ago,” he says. “Then the implant started to smell. It turns out it didn’t quite fit and the gap was allowing fluid to collect which was causing a gum infection.” His dentist in the UK was unable to change the crown as the implant was manufactured by a French company that did not register with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) after Brexit.
“The problem is, they can’t even take it out, because then you have this hole in your bone,” he says. “So I’m in a worse position now than if I’d never had the implant done in the first place.” Paul says he’ll need at least two trips abroad to get the damage repaired. Getting dental work done overseas “is fine – as long as nothing goes wrong” he says.
*Name has been changed