Indonesia in Focus
Dental Tourism: Bali
Tourists hit the island of Bali to do several things – get a suntan, chill out and drink heaps of Bintang, shop ‘till they drop, and, maybe squeeze in a tour or two to soak up a bit of the Balinese culture. However there is a new type of tourism albeit a strange one!.
Can you imagine going on holidays just to get your choppers fixed!. Well, it appears this is the case and Balinese dentists are getting quite a reputation in their profession as Trisha Sertori reports from Denpasar:
Tourists get pearly whites to match tan
“With just two front fangs for teeth in a culture where those are filed, my biggest concern was locals thinking I was a demon.”
So quipped American dental tourist Gair Gerlinger of his recent decision to have major dentistry in Bali rather than in his hometown of Omak, Washington state.
Gair joins hundreds of other foreigners journeying halfway around the world to have their teeth fixed in what appears to be Bali’s burgeoning dental tourism market — according to Gair, for many very good reasons.
Arriving in Bali early February this year, Gair says he needed two upper eye tooth extractions, nine stumps of upper teeth removed, three lower root canals and a set of dentures fitted — all within three weeks.
In the U.S., that dental work would have set this avowed hippie back US$8,000 and many months. The same work in Indonesia gave Gair “the opportunity to discover places like Bali still exist in the world”, and have dentistry he believes is equal “or better” than in the U.S. for around $1,500.
The cost of dentistry in his home country, said Gair, was prohibitive. He had not visited a dentist for 30 years, choosing a bit of home dentistry instead. He saved the money for his Bali dental trip earning $30 a day breaking rocks in Hawaii and living on the smell of salt air.
“I took a vow of poverty back in 1970 that I would never support American governments through taxes,” he said. “I am a back woodsman from Washington state and I have managed to raise two kids, put them both through university and live in what I call palatial poverty for nearly 40 years. I work as a healer so I thought I could also do some home dentistry. Not a good idea.
“The old trick of the door handle and a piece of string works, but I would not recommend it to anyone. I removed two of my own teeth like that with a drop of medicinal whiskey — for courage and for anesthesia. But never again. It was horrifically painful,” said Gair who, following in the footsteps of his physician father, holds a degree in medicine.
It was a friend’s new pearly whites set off by a mahogany tan — word-of-mouth you could say — that set Gair on the seas to Bali and Denpasar’s Sucipto Dental Clinic.
His appearance at the clinic that had gotten tongues wagging around the world must have been extraordinary to its dentists, into whose hands he delivered himself.
At 65, Gair — with white hair and flowers entwined atop his head, white beard reminiscent of Gandalf, and a mouth full of decaying, shattered stumps — is not your typical dental patient who might request three root canals, two dental extractions and nine broken root surgical removals in one day. But this was what Gair, acting as his own doctor, had prescribed, virtually setting his own schedule after booking several months ahead.
“I had limited time and I am tough. I can’t believe how good the dentists are. The guy doing the extractions was so good. Flick, twist and there it was. Getting the broken roots must have been difficult. There was nothing to get hold of — I couldn’t extract them with string and a door handle,” chuckled Gair, cautiously tucking into dinner on the evening following his teeth’s big day out.
An oral surgeon at the Sucipto clinic, Dr. Agung Tri Wibowo, remembers Gair’s stoicism. As the surgeon who extracted Gair’s root stumps applying the latest in dental techniques, he agreed modern techniques were somewhat in advance of Gair’s home-style string and doorknob extraction method.
Agung, a graduate of the school of dentistry at Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University, knows his stuff — as does the rest of the clinic’s five-member dental team, including orthodontist Dr. Wibisono. At least that is the word on the street.
The clinic was founded in 1992, headed by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Dentistry graduate and dental implant master, Dr. Sucipto A. Husada.
Most patients of the clinic are almost devotional in their praise of Sucipto and the clinic’s dental team. Over the past 15 years the clinic’s reputation has grown, with patients now flying in from around the world. Locally, many patients travel to Denpasar from Jakarta, Surabaya and Banyuwangi, despite having well qualified dentists in their home cities.
There are a few discordant voices. An expatriate resident who requested anonymity says he had several root canals performed at Sucipto clinic, with what he says were less than satisfactory results.
“They broke off and had to be redone overseas. It cost me more than a thousand dollars American, which I really could not afford,” he said.
He stressed that he felt the Sucipto dentists and equipment were as good as anywhere else, but was concerned at the apparent dependence of the clinic on major works such as root canals and implants.
Percentage-wise, the clinic has added up to 20 percent annually to its business with patients from outside Bali, explained Agung.
And it is both general dentistry and advanced dental reconstruction that is luring them to Sucipto.
Orthodontics are a growing area for the clinic, with parents bringing their buck-toothed offspring to Bali from overseas for braces and dental corrections, says Agung. He points out that the clinic is happy to work collaboratively with orthodontists in the patient’s home country for monthly checkups and tightening braces, returning at least twice a year for a full examination with Wibisono.
However, Agung stressed that every case was different, and required patient specific dental programs and appointment timetables.
Given the substantial difference in price for equal-standard orthodontic treatment, this growing market is not surprising.
Average prices in the U.S. for the usual two-year braces program are at least Rp 52 million ($5,500). In Australia, orthodontics patients won’t get much change out of A$8,000.
The same work at Sucipto clinic is around Rp 13 million, says Agung.
So even with the cost of airfare, people are still saving and having a Bali holiday at the same time.
Another specialist area of the clinic is dental implants. A single tooth in Australia starts at A$5000 compared to around A$1100 at Sucipto for exactly the same procedure.
As a Master of Implant Surgery, Dr. Sucipto carries out more than 100 implants a year, says Agung, while the oral surgeon undertakes around 30 a year.
The high number of dental implants carried out at the clinic means the skill base and technique is ever improving. As they say, practice makes perfect — whereas few dentists in Australia ever get to try their hand at this advanced work, due to the high cost to patients.
But it’s not only advanced dental techniques at Sucipto that draws the crowd: quality in general dentistry and bedside manner are impressing many.
According to Australian jeweler Kerry, a Sucipto patient, it was not only the quality of dentistry, but also the genuine care in the hands of Dr. Haris Wibowo during an emergency root canal that convinced her she had found her dentist.
“Dr. Haris was so sweet. During the root canal drilling, I could hear him humming this lullaby. He was so gentle and I felt safe,” Kerry recalled, adding that staying calm was not easy with 12 millimeters of drilling needed, but the lullaby helped.
Experiences like Kerry’s and Gair’s are adding, via word-of-mouth advertising, to Bali’s potential dental tourism market. The sector has been dominated by countries such as Thailand, which also has a strong medical tourism following.
Kerry explains her elder sister had planned on heading to Thailand for dental work and a holiday, but was now rapidly changing appointments and flights to Bali and Sucipto Dental Clinic.
Meanwhile, Joanna from Holland had extensive cosmetic dental work, and was as thrilled with the result as a kid waking up after the tooth fairy’s visit.
The day we visited the clinic, a German woman was having work done in one surgery while in another, a woman from Jakarta was getting fillings.
The reasons behind the clinic’s growing reputation with Indonesians, expatriates and holidaymakers is as simple as adding one plus one, said Agung. The clinic delivers quality dentistry and orthodontics at around a quarter of the price compared to most Western countries and Australia, and the potential savings is a strong motivator.
It is a hard financial fact that few people overseas can afford to open their wallets to dentistry on a regular basis without sterling reward — pain relief for most or a mouth full of pearls for some, but Bali might just be the answer.
For more information, contact the Sucipto Dental Clinic on (0361) 222541
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