As Australian health funds look at medical tourism as a serious option, Cambodian companies are looking for Aussie patients. By Julie Masis
Kingdom & Crowns—Dental Holidays to Make You Smile.” This is the name of Cambodia’s first dental tourism company that was launched by an Australian businessman this (northern) summer to encourage Australians to fly to Cambodia for dental treatment.
On its website, Kingdom & Crowns compares the cost of dental procedures in Australia and Cambodia—and offers to arrange everything from flights and dental appointments to hotel stays and trips to the beach.
“Kingdom & Crowns Dental Holidays is an Australian owned and operated business that cares about its clients,” says the website that was created by entrepreneur Michael Howard, a 31-year-old from New South Wales who followed his girlfriend to Cambodia a year ago. “Come for the dental work, stay for the experience!”
Howard got the idea for the dental business thanks to a toothache. The toothache brought him to Cambodia’s most luxurious dental clinic—the 10-storey Roomchang Dental & Aesthetic Hospital that opened last year—where he had a root canal and was extremely satisfied with the treatment.
“I experienced it myself—how good they are,” he says. “It was probably an 80 per cent saving on what I would have paid in Australia.” A root canal and a crown in Cambodia costs around $700—four times less than in Australia, Howard says. An implant done by a Cambodian dentist is also more affordable: it costs $2000 compared with $6000.
Cambodia is not a country that is known for quality medical care. The nation is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge regime during which anyone with an education—including dentists—was targeted for execution. Even Cambodians themselves travel abroad for serious medical procedures, rather than risk being treated by local doctors.
So why would anyone feel differently about Cambodian dentists? According to Roomchang’s marketing manager Adam Fogarty, who wants to encourage Australians to chose Cambodia over Thailand for dental procedures, dentistry is inherently not as dangerous.
“With dental treatment, the potential for negligence is much lower because it’s just teeth,” Fogarty says. “I don’t know anyone who had a life-threatening experience with dental treatment.”
But Dr Karin Alexander, federal president of the Australian Dental Association, disagrees.“It can be something like having a reaction to one of the drugs used—like the local anesthetic or if they give you the wrong antibiotics. It can certainly result in death if the allergic reaction is severe,” she says, adding that picking up an infection is another danger.
There have also been cases where Australians who had dental work abroad had to have everything redone—or worse.
Associate Professor Arun Chandu, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon consultant at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, treated several patients who suffered serious complications after getting dental implants in South-East Asia. One of them was a diabetic man who almost died from an infection he picked up in Thailand. “He was in the ICU for four weeks. We had to drain the pus out of his face at least three times,” he says.
On another occasion, he extracted implants from the mouth of a woman who returned from the Philippines. “These implants had copper corrosion and they were actually green when we removed them,” A/Prof Chandu says.
But Howard says Australian dentists are discouraging dental tourism simply because it means a loss of business for them.
“Put simply, it is not in the interests of Australian dentists to advocate dental work overseas, therefore there is a certain amount of scare tactics used,” he wrote in an email.
According to Dr Callum Durward, a New Zealand dentist who helped to develop Cambodia’s national dental school, Cambodian dentists are not as highly skilled as Australians but this is starting to change.
“The education of dentists in Cambodia is far below what the education of western dentists is. In Cambodia, at the dental schools, there are almost no specialists teaching,” he says. “But there are some dentists in some clinics who can provide very good care in many areas at a quarter of the price you would pay in Australia.”
Improvements are on the horizon, he says.
A selection of Cambodian dentists are about to graduate from Thai universities with degrees in periodontics, crowns and bridges, and maxillofacial surgery. New dentistry programs are being established in Cambodia thanks to visiting volunteer professors from Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Durward says.
“Cambodia has reached the stage of development where a lot of dentists are interested in improving their skills,” he says.
Cambodia’s European Dental Clinic
Other than being treated by local dentists, visitors to Cambodia can go to the European Dental Clinic—which employs one French and one British dentist.
Australian hygienist Angela Clifford, who also works at the clinic, is about to launch her own dental tourism company, Dental Holidays Cambodia.
Clifford says she moved to Cambodia despite a lower salary to experience a different culture.
“In Cambodia my hours are more flexible, the cost of living is lower and I have the spare time to think about doing something different, like starting a small dental holiday business,” she says.
She explains that treatment costs less in Cambodia—even if it is done by European dentists—because overhead costs, such as nurses, secretaries, and security guards are less expensive. Cambodian dentists also don’t need to worry about licenses for X-ray machines, litigation insurance, or registrations with the dental board.
Australian patient Barbara Cockroft, 61, has been setting up her appointments at Phnom Penh’s European Dental Clinic for six years. She’s had three crowns and two implants, and saved thousands of dollars, she says.