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Last Updated: Monday, 3 April 2006, 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK
UK's 'dental tourists' drive boom
Terry O'Neill
BBC News, Budapest

With fewer NHS dentists around and the costs of private treatment rising beyond many patients' means, more and more Britons are having their teeth fixed abroad, with Hungary the most popular destination.

Dentist working on patient
Extensive work such as bridges and implants draw foreign patients

Business is brisk in the two-storey building on Fogarasi Utca, a busy road in suburban Budapest. On the ground floor, the auto service centre is replacing exhausts and fan belts.

One floor up, there's another line of customers waiting for a different kind of refit in the Kreativ Dental Clinic.

The clinic's owner, Attilla Knott, has decked out the reception area with the flags of European nations. English-language copies of 'Hello' are strewn across a coffee table and a television is showing last night's Champions League football.

And his clientele this morning is certainly international: Dutch, Danish, Irish and English patients who've flown in to take advantage of Hungarian bargain dentistry.

In the single surgery room, two patients sit side-by-side, while the dental team mill around them. Next door, technicians are putting the finishing touches on a new set of bridges and implants in the clinic's on-site laboratory.

'Attilla the Gum'

Attilla - known in Hungarian dental circles as "Attilla the Gum" - says it wasn't always this way.

"When I first started this clinic, I had mainly Hungarian patients. They come for check-ups, fillings. All very time-consuming work and all the time I have technicians in my laboratory doing nothing," he said.

"So I started to think Danish, Dutch, Irish, British. They come over here and they need a lot of work and so my laboratory is very busy."

If there are any problems, I'm a big boy. I'll take a couple of aspirin and get on a plane
Bill, UK patient
Much of Kreativ's success is down to a boom in British patients using the internet and budget airlines to seek out cheaper alternatives to private dentistry at home.

Attilla said he is treating up to 90 patients from Britain and Ireland a month.

The clinic does everything from veneers to fillings, but most of the patients need extensive work: bridges and implants which are not usually available on the NHS.

With NHS dentists becoming more scarce - just four for every 10,000 people in England - clinics in Hungary are expecting more patients who need routine work such as crowns.

Cost of living

A dental implant - a metal screw placed into the jaw bone to hold a replacement tooth or bridge - costs 1,000 - 2,000 at my dentist's in north London.

In Hungary, they're putting them in for 580. My dentist charges more than 800 for root canal treatment and a crown. In Budapest, the price is around 250. Even with the cost of flights, accommodation and return visits, the savings are considerable.

Desktop computer
British patients use the internet to seek out cheaper dental treatment
Attilla puts the difference down to the cheaper cost of living in Hungary, having his laboratory on site and the sheer amount of implant and bridge work carried out by his clinic.

The potential savings are so large that Bill Hunter, an oil rig manager from Edinburgh, can afford to have his dental work done in the well-appointed surroundings of The Thermal spa hotel on Margaret Island.

Bill, 53, was quoted 17,000 by a private practice in Edinburgh for root canal work, four implants and 12 crowns. A British dental tourism agency, Perfect Profiles, arranged his treatment here for around 7,000.

He is on his last of four visits. He said it doesn't worry him that if something goes wrong, his dentist is 900 miles away.

There are lots of hidden costs about seeking care abroad and particularly if you have to go back
Susan Sanderson

"If there are any problems, I'm a big boy. I'll take a couple of aspirin and get on a plane. The ticket will cost me the price of a consultation back home."

However, the British Dental Association are not so dismissive of the problems regarding follow-up care.

Susan Sanderson, chairwoman of the BDA's executive board, said: "There have been anecdotal cases where dentists have been asked to look at patients who have had care abroad, particularly when it's been minor surgery.

"There are lots of hidden costs about seeking care abroad and particularly if you have to go back," she said.

But dentists in Hungary are used to dealing with foreign teeth. For decades, patients from Austria and Germany have been coming over to have their mouths sorted out for a fraction of the price at home.

Foreign dental patients have been coming to Hungary for decades

A dental industry has emerged in towns along the border and an estimated one in three Austrians now use Hungarian dentists.

Austrian dentists have complained that they have to patch up the shoddy work done in Hungary, a charge vehemently deny by the Hungarians who point out that their training - which at least five years - meets European Union standards.

The emerging market of British patients is concentrated on Budapest due to its accessibility by three budget airlines.

But Chris Hall, who runs a dental travel agency in London, prefers to send his clients to dentists outside the capital.

He said if people used a good agency they would see highly-trained dentists and the work would be carried out under guarantee.

"If someone arranges their own treatment, there's a chance the dentist won't honour the guarantee," he said.

"Then you're going to be fighting through the Hungarian courts. It's going to cost you a lot of money and the likelihood of winning could be small."

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