People in the UK are traveling abroad for dental care as treatments closer to home are becoming increasingly inaccessible.
Nine out of ten practices in England are not offering NHS appointments to new adult patients amid chronic underfunding and the pandemic. Funding cuts over the past decade mean NHS dentistry would need 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 routinely offered on the NHS, and cost thousands of pounds privately.
Here, four patients discuss traveling abroad for dental treatment due to costs and the inability to get treatment there.
“His whole face was swollen”
Adriana Clark, 38, underwent dental treatment 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 had 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 fillings since January.
Meanwhile, her husband had been unable to access care for two months for a serious dental infection. “It was impossible to get an appointment,” she says. Clark describes a cycle of calls to 111; receive the number of a firm; being told they weren’t accepting patients; and call 111. Meanwhile, he was in pain. She said: “He had such a bad infection that his eyes were closing – his whole face was swollen.” He was eventually rushed out by a dentist they knew.
Clark paid £10 for two fillings at a dental practice in Ismailia; an eight-tooth bridge cost him £350. “Done privately in the UK, it would probably have cost between £4,000 and £5,000,” she says. “I don’t think I would go to the dentist [in the UK] unless I have to. Dentists are sorely understaffed – it’s the system, not the individual clinics.
“It’s getting so bad that the painkillers aren’t helping”
When Dessi, 28, started suffering from toothaches two years ago, she called all the dentists in her London borough who 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 repaired,” she says, adding that there’s “a big hole” in it that will probably need to be pulled out. “If the food touches it, the pain becomes so intense that the painkillers do not help.”
Private treatment is out of the question for the compliance professional, who says the bulk of her income is spent on rent and bills. Dessi, who has lived in the UK for 10 years, extended her trip this month to see her family in Bulgaria for treatment. She says she has already paid less than £50 for an exam, 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 at home taking care of my teeth,” she says. “I have to fix it and it won’t happen here.”
“I just wish I had done it sooner”
Britons are also traveling 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 last two molars removed after a tooth infection in 2021, his dentist told him he would need dentures. “I freaked out – I said, no, I’m not ready for prostheses yet,” he says. He had a consultation with an implant specialist who quoted him £3,500 per implant. “There was no way I was doing that.”
Watkins considered his treatment options abroad and decided to go to a clinic in Istanbul to get his teeth done “once and for all”. For two extractions, 10 dental implants, a bone graft and 28 crowns, plus a seven-day stay in a hotel, Watkins paid around £7,000 – a fraction of the price he would have paid in the UK. He had the implants in May and will be back in November for the crowns. He felt nervous before he left, but thought to himself, “What do I have to lose? If I do nothing, I will have dentures. He was impressed with the treatment. “My teeth have been the Achilles’ heel of my life – I wish I had done everything sooner,” he says.
“Dentistry abroad is fine – as long as everything is fine”
But treatment abroad carries significant risks, as Paul* learned when he had a badly implanted implant in France. The 48-year-old freelancer did this in July 2020 while on a work trip as he was unable to get an appointment in London amid Covid restrictions.
“Everything was fine until about six months ago,” he says. “Then the implant started to smell bad. Turns out it didn’t quite fit and the gap was allowing fluid to build up causing gum infection. Her dentist in the UK was unable to change the crown because the implant was made by a French company which did not register with the Medicines and Health Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) after Brexit.
“The problem is they can’t even remove it, because then you have this hole in the bone,” he says. “So I’m in a worse situation now than if I had never had the implant in the first place.” Paul says he will need at least two trips abroad to repair the damage. Getting dental work done abroad “is fine – as long as it’s okay,” he says.
*Name has been changed