Dental tourism. I was first introduced to this phrase shortly after arriving in Albania. We were staying in Embassy provided temporary housing and one of the tourist magazines left in our apartment had an article on the dental tourism industry in Albania. I laughed at the time and am still chuckling now, but this is for real. Albania-hotels.com has a whole page dedicated to this travel niche and there is even an Albanian dental tourism Facebook page. The concept behind medical tourism isn't new; people will willingly travel thousands of miles to undergo medical treatments that are either unavailable or cost prohibitive in their native countries. Of course, most medical tourism involves people travelling from less developed countries to more developed ones in order to receive their treatments. Countries in the Middle East, Central Europe, and South and Central America as well a handful in Asia rank high as medical treatment destinations. The Balkans, not so much. And for me, there lies the irony. Albania is what I would consider a still developing country, yet their dental industry appears to be far more developed than just about everything else here.
Early on I noticed that there is an abundance of dental clinics in Albania. In some areas of the city they are as numerous as car washes and cafes. Even in the most remote village, if there are more than a handful of buildings in one area, you are apt to find a dental clinic. And because of the plethora of dentists, getting work done here is very inexpensive when compared to many parts of the world. Given the number of dental clinics in the country you might expect all Albanians to be walking around with perfect teeth. Many are. From young to old many Albanians have teeth any model would envy. Even our own nanny has a newly acquired set of perfect full implants. For those not opting to go that route, veneers are the other popular option. But, at the opposite end of the spectrum you see people with poorly cared for teeth, or even no teeth at all. This seems to be more frequently observed in older generations who came of age when dental care was virtually non-existent. If you look carefully at the groups of men gathered in cafes, if they are of an older generation they are likely to have only a few, yellowed teeth in their mouths. No implants or veneers here!
I've long suspected that not all dental clinics are the same and yesterday, during my own visit to an Albanian dentist, I discovered that this theory was true. I am fortunate to have healthy teeth so my visits to dentists have generally been limited to annual cleanings. For this I am grateful since I absolutely hate going. I will always put it off as long as I can since just thinking about it is enough to keep me up at night. Silly? Perhaps. But it is what it is. Shortly before we moved overseas, under duress I went to the dentist to have a chipped front tooth repaired. Anticipating the visit was worse than the actual procedure and the results made it all worth it. I thought that episode was behind me. Until I re-chipped that same tooth this past weekend. Monday morning I dutifully visited the Embassy's health unit where they wasted no time in scheduling an appointment with a "really clean and western dentist". I was hesitant, but what were my other options?
Yesterday afternoon I set off with an Embassy driver to the said dentist. I was told I didn't want to drive myself since the clinic was extremely difficult to find and even if I could find it, I would never find a (legal) parking space. The drivers at the Embassy know the city well so I have never questioned their ability to find a destination. Midway to our destination, however, the driver told me that he wasn't really sure where we were going. When I questioned him he corrected himself by telling me he knew the general location but assured me that we would be able to find it. I thought luck was on our side when we found a real parking spot across from a bakery which "was near the dental clinic". (Yes, these were our directions). I didn't see anything resembling a dentist office but an inquiry to a group of young men lounging at a sidewalk cafe lead us around the corner into an alley. Sure enough, we saw a sign indicating a dentist office on the second floor of a store front building. The condition of the building caused me to enter with trepidation; the stairwell was unlit and littered with discarded papers and food wrappers. On the second floor I encountered three doors, two of which were unmarked and a third that had a giant picture of teeth on it. I hesitantly rang the door bell and exhaled a sigh of relief when no one answered. Back outside I went, calling the health unit for clarification as to where I was supposed to go. Another inquiry to a passerby revealed that there were in fact two dental clinics side by side on this narrow street. The second, and correct one was on the second floor of the abutting building but this being Albania, was completely unmarked from the outside. Climbing the stairs in the well lit and impeccably clean stairwell I felt better. Or as better as I could considering the fact I was going to the dentist.
Twenty minutes and thirty dollars later I was back on the street with a now perfect tooth. The clinic was immaculate, the dentist and her assistant spoke English, and I had survived my first (and hopefully only) Albanian dental experience. Other than an odd offer for anesthesia ---which was totally unnecessary and which I declined-- and being ushered directly into the exam chair rather than sitting in the waiting room forever, the experience was very much like that of visiting an American dentist. If I didn't know where the chip had been I wouldn't even be able to see the repair. The thirty dollar price was less than my co-pay with dental insurance in the United States. With these prices and quality, I can see why Albania is building their dental tourism industry. However, I don't know if I would travel here from somewhere else for the sake of having any dental work done. Then again, I would be hard pressed to drive across town in the United States to visit a dentist.