I’ve had major dental expenses come up from time to time, including a nasty mountain bike accident that left me briefly without front teeth.

But I wasn’t prepared for the sticker shock I got last month when my dentist told me a crown I’d had since the ’90s on one of my lower teeth had come loose and a cavity had formed underneath.

The estimate for a new porcelain/ceramic crown, plus related expenses: $2,269. Though I have insurance, the insurance column on my estimate said zero. The patient column said $2,269.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a root canal situation — yet. Fast action was required.

There were some options. I could get estimates from other dentists in Tucson, but that seemed time consuming, especially given that after sorting out the estimates, getting a new crown would then require two appointments — one to get the old crown taken off and a temporary crown put on, and a follow-up to get the permanent crown.

The upshot: I ended up in Mexico, where I got a new crown for $440 in one day.

It was all remarkably easy. I parked in Nogales, Arizona for $3, walked over to the Mexican side, and had my first appointment at noon. That’s when Dr. Karina Melendez at Dental Laser Nogales took off the old crown, cleaned out the cavity and made an impression for a new crown.

At 3:30 p.m. I went back, got the new crown and was back in Tucson by 6 p.m. In between the two appointments I had time to walk around Nogales and have lunch at La Roca.

An estimated 500,000 Americans per year go to Mexico for dental care, North Carolina-based Patients Beyond Borders says.

The company estimates the worldwide medical tourism market is growing at a rate of 15 to 25 percent, and says the most popular destinations for Americans getting dental work are Mexico and Costa Rica, with others going to Hungary, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea.

Most of the Americans getting dental care in Mexico live in highly populated border-area cities like Tucson, Patients Beyond Borders CEO Josef Woodman says. He has been researching the industry for 12 years and says while cost is unquestionably the driving factor for seeking out-of country care, he urges dental tourists to do their homework and not to choose based on cost alone.

Woodman has heard horror stories and happy ones, too. While my outcome was positive, our conversation did leave me thinking I could have done more research before taking the plunge.

How to choose

When selecting a dentist on the other side of the border, look for clinics that list their dentists’ names with photos and education credentials on their website, Woodman advises. Dental Laser’s website does not include its dentists’ education credentials, though the site does does list names and photos.

He also recommends using a site called Dental Departures Inc., a company that is based out of Bangkok, Thailand but started in Seattle in 2011. It includes a team that has researched more than 2,000 clinics in 35 countries, including four in Nogales. Dental Laser Nogales is not one of them, though Dental Departures officials say they are working to partner with more Nogales clinics.

Company founder Paul McTaggert compares Dental Departures to a TripAdvisor for Americans seeking dental care outside the country. Dental Departures also allows patients to make appointments through its portal.

Clinics listed on his site have all been vetted by a visit from the Dental Departures team, as have the credentials of the dentists who work in the clinics, he says. The clinics listed have also completed and returned a quality questionnaire provided by McTaggert’s team. Dental Departures then includes reviews from past and current patients on its site.

McTaggert suggests Tucsonans not limit their options to just Nogales. There is a large selection of high quality dentists in Los Algodones near Yuma and in Agua Prieta and Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco), too, he says.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories about sloppy work in Mexico — broken crowns, broken implants,” says Woodman of Patients Beyond Borders. “The check and balance is that most of these clinics want to do the right thing. They want happy patients. If you can show they screwed up, chances are they are going to want to make good on it.”

Dental Laser Nogales, just steps from the border, is one of the three Nogales dental clinics recommended by the Sonora Medical Tourism Association — an organization I found out about through the Mexican Consulate in Tucson. The association’s partners include the Dental College of Sonora. So that was a plus.

But I chose Dental Laser Nogales primarily because of its online Google reviews, which were generally very good. I also heard positive word-of-mouth testimonials from two acquaintances.

I’ve since learned that Dental Laser does a lot of outreach in the Tucson area. Many of the people in the large, crowded waiting room with me had come from the U.S., most from Tucson, Green Valley and Oro Valley. One, a hair stylist from Vail, was getting an implant for $1,850, which was a big savings from the $5,000 she’d been quoted in Tucson.

Other people I spoke with were retirees who have been going to Mexico for dental care for years. Groups from the Tucson area Voyager RV Resort often carpool to Dental Laser, the resort’s activity assistant Adrienne Montgomery told me. At one time, Dental Laser even sent buses to pick residents up, she said.

“I’ve never heard any complaints,” Montgomery says. “Some people have worries, but we’ve assured them it’s not a problem.

No complaints

Not everyone who gets dental care in Nogales, Sonora goes to Dental Laser Nogales, of course. Tim Janes, a 70-year-old Tucson resident who works at the Center for Biological Diversity, has crossed the border to see Nogales, dentist Dr. Victor Bojorquez several times over the past month.

Janes went on the recommendation of a friend. He needed a lot of dental work, including four root canals.

“It is costing me at least one third or maybe one quarter of what I’d pay in the U.S.,” says Janes, who does not have dental insurance. “One of the things I like is that they are more concerned with saving teeth than trying to replace them.”

Janes either drives or takes a shuttle to Nogales that costs $15 each way. He has no complaints.

Neither do I. Dental Laser Nogales did a good job on my crown. The clinic told me most of their dentists are educated in Mexico and are constantly updating their skills with continuing education around the world. Their implant specialist just got back from training in Germany.

Still, Arizona Dental Association executive director Dr. Kevin Earle says he knows of dentists in Tucson and Yuma who have had to fix incompetent dental work that was done in Mexico.

“That’s a shame. But it’s sort of roll of the dice,” he says. “If you have an infectious disease exposure in the U.S., you have a dental board to go to, the local health authorities that would be involved in it. I’m not sure that’s true across the border.”

I have no plans to switch all of my dental care to Mexico as it’s a little more than an hour drive each way. Plus, I have a great dentist in Tucson.

But in special cases, when the savings for me is more than a thousand dollars and the clinic is professional, clean, modern and friendly (and bilingual), I’m willing to roll the dice and go to Mexico. I’m happy I did.

Resources

Dental Care in Mexico

Sonora Medical Tourism Association www.medtourson.com

Dental Departures: www.dentaldepartures.com

Patients Beyond Borders: www.patientsbeyondborders.com

Compare prices of U.S. dental procedure by zip code using the Fair Health cost calculator: