10% of dental clinics may either close or refocus on domestic patients

Ian Youngman interviews Dental Departures founder Paul McTaggart on his dental travel agency plans, the regionalism of dental tourism, and how this global market attracting international patients will change in the next year.

Q. What does Dental Departures do for dentists and customers?

Dental Departures is a leading online dental travel agency. It was launched in 2012 and this year we passed a major milestone where we broke through the 1+ million patients served, with more than 100,000 appointments booked to date. We help patients find, compare and schedule appointments with dentists around the globe. We believe that when patients receive dental care outside their home country, they can save up to 70% on their dental treatment. Our focus is on patients who require elective “out-of-pocket” dentistry.

Q. Do you charge consumers?

We don’t charge patients to book through our platform. We are a free “search, compare and book” platform for patients. Dental Departures operates on a B2B2C model where partner dental clinics and hospitals are charged a marketing commission for each completed booking.

Q. Where does the business want to be in 3 to 5 years?

In five years’ time we plan to:

  • Expand the breadth and depth of our global dental partner network
  • Evolve to more complex dental procedures
  • Improve our technology platform
  • Use machine learning to provide better dental recommendations
  • Expand into the insurance sector as a partner network provider

Q. What is your global reach?

Our headquarters is based in Bangkok, Thailand and we have 62 team members spread across 18 countries. Dental Departures offers services in 39 countries, with 9,000 dentists. We want to offer services in 93 countries.

Q. Who do you see as the main country suppliers of domestic and international dental tourists – and why?

Dental tourists generally use similar travel corridors as for business travel. Someone in the EU will tend to seek out treatment intra-regionally in Europe as opposed to flying to an exotic location such as Thailand, Malaysia or India. Most dental travellers stick to locations within six hours by car/air from their homes.

Top countries for outbound dental tourism demand in the EU are the UK, France, Germany and Italy. For outbound dental tourism demand in the Americas, it is the United States and Canada and, to a lesser extent, the Caribbean region. Main countries for outbound dental tourism demand in Asia are China, India, Indonesia and Australia.

Q. Who do you see as the main country destinations for domestic and international dental tourists – and why?

Most travellers in Europe confine 90% of their travel to less than six hours travel time from their home country; so they travel intra-regionally in Europe (with the occasional trip to the Americas/Asia). The same goes for the Americas and Asia.

Top countries for dental tourism supply in the EU are Hungary, Turkey, Poland, Spain and Croatia. For dental tourism supply in the Americas, it is Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Main countries for dental tourism supply in Asia are Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

Q. How do you see this changing in 2020 and 2021?

Drive-2-markets will open up first internationally as travellers are much more comfortable in their ‘car bubble,’ therefore avoiding the perceived hassle/regulations/infection threat of air travel. We are already seeing this trend with Americans driving to Mexico and Germans driving to Hungary.

Later, the direct point-to-point fly-2-markets will open up as travellers will prefer the clarity of figuring out the travel restrictions in only a few countries, as opposed to flying hub-and-spoke and having to think about all the associated country travel restrictions (hubbing out of Dubai, Frankfurt, London, etc.). Hub-and-spoke air travel will resurface last.

Q. How will all the new and fast-changing rules for travellers entering country affect potential dental tourists?

One word – massively. The only consistent element of global travel in 2020/21 will be the level of inconsistency of Covid-19 travel protocols for each inbound destination. Every country will have slightly different travel bubble bans, mandatory travel quarantines for 14 days, contact tracing apps, medical certification, Covid-19 testing and airport screening.

Q. Will people want to travel more or less?

People want to travel just as much in the past. Unfortunately, they will be hindered by travel bans, mandatory travel quarantines for 14 days, contact tracing apps, medical certification, Covid-19 testing, and reduced airline/hotel supply which may temporarily increase prices. All of these are friction points to international travel for 2020. I believe the vast majority of people who had international travel planned for 2020 will instead choose staycations and push their global travel aspirations to 2021.

Q. How do you see Dental Departures developing?

Dental Departures will continue to expand geographically, both in depth by adding greater supply in our current markets and in breadth by growing into new destinations and markets.

We will continue to expand our value-add to our global dental clinic network by encouraging dentists to use our technology platform directly; this has a quality search algorithm, mobile, booking path features and more.

We plan to take baby steps into the insurance ecosystem to help medical insurers add dental services to their offerings, following the trend of insurers moving from health insurers to healthcare services providers backed by insurance.

Q. Dentists seem to be having a hard time in some countries. How do you see the future of the dental businesses?

These are incredibly challenging times for dentists worldwide, who are trying to keep their staff on their payroll while seeing their international patient business evaporate for the foreseeable future (until global travel bans/quarantines are lifted and patient trust returns).

I estimate that we’ll see at least 10% of dental clinics who were focused primarily on international patients close their doors. These clinics will either cease business completely (and their dentists/staff move to larger corporate/conglomerate dental corporations) or they will transition their business to focus 100% on local domestic patients.

Q. Countries vary hugely in whether state or private health insurance covers dental care – how does this affect dental tourism?

I’m a Canadian, who has also lived in the US for 11 years and Mexico/Thailand for over eight years. Through personal experience, I can tell you dental insurance varies a great deal. Regardless of the landscape, being a single-payer system (Canada), or private/corporate payer system (United States), there is a huge market of patients forced to pay out-of-pocket for their elective dental treatment.

Both private/state systems offer:

a) only regular maintenance (cleanings, fillings) and emergency treatment

b) 100% pay out generally capped at a low annual rate, typically US$2,000 (€1,700) per year

c) no coverage for aesthetic and complex dentistry (dental implants, all-on-four, all-on-six treatments etc.)

Whether single, with a family or retired, the average person is paying more money out-of-pocket for their dental care every year over and above what the state/private healthcare insurance covers. Ultimately, the cost savings for global dental treatment more than cover the travel costs and results in a net savings compared to similar dental treatment at home.

Q. Why does medical tourism get confused on dental insurance within health insurance?

Most insurance covers emergency dental treatment and routine dental maintenance only, so the majority of the dental tourism market is ‘out-of-pocket’ payment. Based on our experience, less than 5% of patients in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Middle East can submit their bills to their government/corporate/private insurance companies to be reimbursed post-treatment.

Q. Most global or regional health insurers have huge national and global healthcare networks, but do they have dental networks?

Our research shows that not all global/regional insurers have complementary dental networks.

I think there is an opportunity for Dental Departures to help these insurers to evolve from being just healthcare insurers to become healthcare providers, by adding an expansive global dental network. We can bolt on our network of over 9,000 dentists in 32 countries. These dentists are vetted, we have a quality dentist search algorithm and we have a customer care team that operates 24/7 in 14 different languages.

We hope to partner with medium/small insurance companies to provide high quality emergency/elective dental treatment for IPMI customers (expats, permanent foreign residents, High Net Worth globals/locals, and the millions of international students), leisure/business travellers and other customers.