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Americans make passage to India for cheap dentistry

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Patients wait in the clinic's lobby. Dr. Pradhan has been getting more and more American patients every year. (Courtsey of Dr. Suchetan Pradhan)

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Inside Dr. Pradhan's dental clinic situated in Mumbai's posh Juhu area. (Courtesy of Dr. Suchetan Pradhan)

Pamela Salem O’Hagan, 63, has an old connection with India. Born in Mumbai before the country broke free of Britain, O’Hagan, an actress, has made numerous nostalgic visits to her birthplace. But the last time she went to India, in November, was not to see the Taj Mahal or temples.

It was for seven inexpensive tooth implants for her husband, Michael, 65. A friend told the O’Hagans about inexpensive hip surgery in a town in south India, which made them think about Michael’s teeth. With a bit of digging they located a Mumbai dentist, Dr. Suchetan Pradhan, who gave a quote so low that, when added to travel costs, they spent one-third the amount they would have back home in Los Angeles.

“Going to a dentist here is so ridiculously expensive," Pamela said. "The prices are wicked! I had two terribly bad dentists here and had lost all confidence in them.”

Pradhan not only charged far less, he inspired faith, personally answering all e-mail messages to clear up any concerns the O'Hagans had about the surgical procedures.

“Being actors, we have to take special care when we get our teeth done,” said Pamela, who has appeared in a James Bond movie. (Her husband has had roles on television and in films, including “End of Days.”) “Pradhan treated us so well and frankly, we found him much better than a lot of dentists here.”

The couple combined the dental work with a side trip to the sublime beaches of Goa. They plan to return to India in March for follow-up treatment.

Google the words “dental tourism in India” and 968,000 entries pop up in 0.15 second. The Internet has encouraged a new form of outsourcing to India, as increasing numbers of Americans fly there to get their teeth cleaned and capped. Some patients mix the procedures with sightseeing. Others simply go for the porcelain bridges and fly right back.

“Dentistry, the world over, is becoming more and more standardized which also contributes to the cheaper costs involved,” said Dr. Praful Sabadra, whose has a dental clinic in Mumbai.

Pradhan estimates that he treats up to 20 patients from the United States and Europe every month. Apart from the odd serious ailment, most of his American patients come for cosmetic work. Often, patients contact the clinic directly. “They e-mail us their scanned X-rays and we get back with a cost and treatment estimate,” Pradhan said.

One happy customer is Wes Thompson, an engineer from Houston who visited Pradhan five years ago for cosmetic dental work.

“I think Pradhan’s equipment and the work he does is as good, and maybe even better than what I could have gotten at home. It was a good buy,” Thompson said.

Not everyone is convinced, though.

Dr. Kimberley Harms, a consumer adviser and spokeswoman with the American Dental Association, said, “We encourage people to do their research before deciding to go abroad and get treatment. Find out what laws exist in that country to protect them against any kind of medical negligence and whether the dental treatment available there conforms to international standards.”

Harms said some patients complained to the association after returning from India. One woman said she had to get six tooth caps redone because the porcelain bridge covering them broke after she came home.

Such mishaps could have happened here as well, Harms admitted, but if the patient had undergone the procedure in the United States, she could have gone back to her dentist for a free remedy.

“Instead, she ended up paying money all over again for the same treatment," Harms said. "And the insurance company is not going to pay for the same treatment twice.” She noted that follow-up treatments are a normal part of dentistry. “Dentistry is never a one-time thing. There is a degree of maintenance involved.”

Harms added that Americans seeking cheap treatment could easily find it at dental schools, which can charge half the standard price.

Some patients have reservations, too, about getting on a plane for dental work. “Well, I don’t know if I would want to mix my vacation with a toothache. Going all that way to get your teeth cleaned sounds a little too adventurous for my taste,” said Cindy Packer, 32, a sales executive from Denver.

Concerns about travel aside, do Indian standards match the ones here? Pamela O’Hagan said Pradhan’s clinic was as clean as any in Beverly Hills, Calif. The actual journey and making a return trip within a short period of time was a hassle, however.

She could have enlisted a medical tourism company to organize the expedition, however. One such firm, Erco Travels of New Delhi, makes all the necessary arrangements. “People interested just shoot us an e-mail and we make the arrangements from fixing their appointments with doctors and clinics, their stay and tourist itinerary,” said one of the company’s directors, Ravi Gusain.

Of course, it’s always more palatable if packaged as a luxury holiday.

John Rawold was told by his dentist in Atlanta that he would have to pay around $11,000 for new veneers--a cosmetic procedure in which a tooth-colored material is attached to the front of the teeth. Searching for a cheaper alternative, he found Sabadra’s Web site on the Internet.

“I was able to combine a vacation to Mumbai and Goa with expert dental care, including a set of eight high-quality veneers, airfare, 10 nights in five-star hotels and all the extras that come with being on vacation, and I still managed to save more than $5,000,” Rawold wrote on Sabadra’s Web site.

Alongside is his picture, predictably showing a wide and toothy smile.

E-mail: ss3052@columbia.edu