There are more than 500 dentists practicing in dental clinics like this one in Los Algodones. There are more than 500 dentists practicing in dental clinics like this one in Los Algodones. Krystyna Adams

Workers exploited by dental tourism in MX

Situation in 'Molar City' reveals need for global regulation

The town of Los Algodones in Mexico is nicknamed “Molar City.” It has a population of just 6,000 people and, shockingly, it has more than 500 practicing dentists. This has produced an intense clustering of dental clinics within a four-block radius.

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Many of these dentists chose to work in this town in Baja California because of the tourist traffic, given its proximity to the Mexico-United States border.

Thousands of Canadian and American tourists park their cars and walk across the border into Los Algodones to spend the day souvenir shopping, eating and drinking in the local restaurants, and purchasing alcohol, prescription drugs and dental care at lower costs than available back home.

In 2015 and 2016, I spent four months living in Los Algodones conducting interviews and participating in local events for a doctoral research project in health sciences at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

My work investigated dental travel as part of the wider phenomenon of “medical tourism” — an industry that is growing rapidly as more and more patients seek access to new or more affordable medical treatments outside of their countries of residence.

My research raises concerns about exploitative industry practices in Los Algodones, Mexico. These include poor working conditions and discriminatory practices for employees in dental clinics, harassment of indigenous street vendors and lack of access to dental care for local residents.

Most of the residents and employees I met during my research in Los Algdones were grateful for the much-needed economic benefits of the dental tourism industry. But I also heard concerns and frustrations from members of the local population. They felt that many of the industry activities were unfair and difficult to change.

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One interviewee explained how dental tourists often come with prejudiced assumptions about Mexico, stating: “We see a lot of racism . . . people trying to come here and saying, okay it is Mexico, I can ask for anything and pay you less.”

Local residents and industry employees felt that dental tourists’ perceptions of Mexico as unsafe and underdeveloped are driving poor working conditions and discriminatory practices.

For example, employees work long hours to promote Los Algodones’ reputation for their employers as an ideal site to purchase dental care. Some also said they had experienced harassment from dental tourists negotiating lower prices and faster care.

Clinic employees and local residents also experience stressful interactions in the industry to meet the expectations of clinic owners. Some owners encourage employees to minimize their Mexican accents. This is done to distance Los Algodones from prejudiced perceptions of Mexico as an underdeveloped place with inferior medical care.

One participant described how a dental clinic owner offered to pay him to dump buckets of water on the heads of indigenous souvenir vendors working near his clinic. Along with harassment, clinic owners also encourage indigenous vendors to “stay cool, sell stuff cheap and smile at people.”

Many owners worry that the presence of indigenous vendors might deter tourists by representing the underdeveloped Mexico of tourists’ imaginations.

My research also revealed that dental clinic owners’ concerns about reputation can decrease access to dental care for local residents. Clinic owners suggested they’re too busy marketing their services and treating foreign patients to treat many locals. Some owners are using free X-rays to entice tourists, who shop around for their ideal care.

Most of the dental services in Los Algodones are also focused on the provision of major restorative treatment rather than preventative care, given the needs of dental tourists. Most local residents cannot afford this type of care. This is concerning as there are limited publicly funded dental care options available in this region of Mexico.

Overall, the “dental Shangri-la of the Mexican desert” is only an oasis for those able and willing to travel and pay for dental care. For many, the industry provides much-needed employment. But this might be stressful, unfair work for individuals unable to use the dental oasis for their own health needs.

Participation in the global medical tourism industry is increasing and research shows that this growth raises serious ethical challenges, at least in the industry’s current form. Researchers have raised concerns about the negative impacts on the health of local people who live and work in these medical tourism destinations.

My in-depth investigation of industry practices in the town of Los Algodones provides more evidence to support these concerns. It suggests the need for better global regulation of dental tourism and medical tourism more widely.

This regulation is needed to avoid competition between industry sites driving down labor standards in the global industry and diverting health resources away from populations in need. This regulation could enforce acceptable work conditions to avoid a race-to-the-bottom effect as industry sites try to attract customers to lower-cost, desirable medical care.

The ConversationMore information about these concerns could also help individuals participating in the industry to avoid harmful practices. It could remind medical tourists that cost savings for care might come at a cost to fair labor standards — and that they should allow sufficient time for treatment and be prepared to pay fair prices.

Krystyna Adams is a doctoral student in health sciences and a member of the SFU Medical Tourism Research Group at Simon Fraser University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • pedrochapala

    based on this poorly written and researched fluffy, article i would think that ms. adams should be removed from the doctoral programme at simon fraser.

    • Garry Montgomery

      Hear, hear . . .

  • Hyrdflyr

    I go to Los Algodones for dental care, only because I cannot afford care in the US. Actually I go to the clinic in the accompanying photo. I have seen no indication of racism or disrespect of the street vendors or locals. I get good, amazingly fast and efficient treatment at affordable prices and technology that is at least the equal, and usually better than some of the hacks I have seen in the US. Viva Los Algodones dentists and their employees!

  • Martininsocal

    So what this progressive leftist journalist is really saying is that Mexicans should be paying as much for dental care as it cost in the U.S.A. To her, that is ‘fair’. Anybody seeking better prices is taking advantage of their white privilege.

  • Garry Montgomery

    Another do-good Canadian college student is going to write Mexico’s laws? Her standard of article writing, if employed writing a law, would result in a mess . . .

  • Rufus

    Wanting to pay less for a service is not racism. Negotiating a lower price is not harassment, nor is giving advice to street vendors to smile at tourists. The fact that Mexico is unsafe and underdeveoped is not a perception, it’s the truth.

    This article reads like a communists primer making a case for from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. It’s poppycock and destructive.

    Algodone is a shining example of competiton for the consumer’s peso. There’s not a thing wrong with it, in fact, it should be encouraged. Competition produces jobs, wages, taxes. It’s good for everybody.

    Me thinks Ms. Adams needs to get out of school and learn something.

  • Sharl

    dear author: there are few dental care plans in the US included in most Medicare plans…if it IS included, ones monthly premium is significantly higher. So, remember most seniors are on a FIXED income, thus, we seek the best for what we can afford…….

  • cooncats

    Another liberal idiot here labeling everything as racism including bargaining, which is what everyone in Mexico does including the Mexicans. And a lot of whining about unfair. This is the kind of emotion-driven snowflakes the colleges turn out these days.

    • ben

      there are some good dentists in mexico, &really bad ones as well. the best one i found does not have a fancy office. his fees are less because he doesnt have a high rent. i also had good care on guadalajara. this is another propaganda artical. i am sure the vendors are happy to get the business from the tourists. nothing to see here folks.

  • bob

    ridiculous story.

  • Doug Stead

    I have a home in Arizona and also in Progreso near Merida in the Yucatan and so I’m very familiar with the medical and dental offerings on both sides. I used to get dental care in Tijuana when I lived in San Diego and agree with all of the comments below that the dental care is often equal or better than in the states. Mexican dentists are often trained in the states and use the same equipment. It’s called competition which takes business away from American dentists. Nothing wrong with competition. If there were global regulations, which there never will be, it would end up closing down the Mexican dental and medical industry because there would be no reason for American nationals to go there and the Mexican nationals would be the losers as well as the indigenious people who also get a side benefit from the medical tourism by selling their wares.

    • Fred Jones

      I found that Reytek Labs and Dr. Cecilia Vazquez in Merida were not experienced in restoring and designing crowns. After making 5 trips to Merida, (three trips were supposed to take care of all the work needed to be done which included three implants) I came home with disappointing crowns that do not have the proper curve of spee and I now have 3 different colored crowns in my mouth. The first set of crowns Reytek designed and Dr Vazquez installed had to be removed and designed again due to the lack of craftsmanship by Reytek Labs, Dr Vazquez also failed to check the occlusion on the first set of crowns or they would have never been glued in. The second set of crowns were better then the first but they are still inferior to what I know I would have obtained here in my home state from a prosthodontist. We agreed on a price for my restoration and then Dr Vazquez started charging me for some of the faulty crowns that had to be replaced simple because she did not examine them to make sure they were designed correctly, she glued them in then I brought up the fact that they were not designed properly.. I enjoyed my trip to Merida and Progreso but I picked the wrong dentist and she used the worst Lab in Merida (Reytek) to make my crowns. I learned my lesson and I have to live with that decision. I could write many more pages about the dental experience I had in Merida. Hope this post help someone.

      • Doug Stead

        I can relate similar stories of my own in the UK, Canada, and the US, all places I have lived at one time or another. I always do research now and go by the recommendations of others so I will avoid this Dentist and the lab they used. The great thing now is the Internet and search engines that can help you avoid bad practitioners no matter what the service is you are looking for and where. Google brings up al kinds of dentists used by expats in Merida with reviews.

        • Fred Jones

          I did the research, I had recommendations on the Lab and on the Doctor. I got turned on to Merida by a lady in Knoxville, TN that had a blog, she was totally satisfied and her Dr used Reytek. I called and emailed the Dr and spoke with her several times before hand. I also spoke and emailed 6 other Dr’s in Merida. The one I choice said she had the experience and guaranteed me she would do an excellent job, she had the best plan to accomplish the task. She claimed to be the same as a prosthodontist. She had instructed at the local Dental School. Reytek has a sister lab run by the same man Luis de Yturbe in Houston called Tristar dental. I wrote Yturbe several times with no response. I am sure there are better Dentist in Merida but I found out that most of them use Reytek. Reytek employees have no formal training as they are trained on the job. I am the one who paid in full+ and I am the one who suffered the consequences.

          Question: How does one prevent ones house from being broken into in Progreso during an absence? I stayed at a Hotel in Centro and the clerk said they would break the front door glass out and the crawl thru, he said the sound awoke him and when he approached the thief he went back thru the opening and cut his back. the policia rounded up a truckload for the clerk to identify but the culprit was not among them. The clerk stated that theft was the biggest problem in Merida and I would assume everywhere else too.

          • Doug Stead

            Seems like these Reytek lab people have a bit of a monopoly in Merida and the Dentists don’t have a lot of choice. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.

            As for theft and break ins in Mérida I’m not too sure about the real situation. Crime here in the Yucatán is nominal compared to other parts of Mexico and even the US. Petty thefts are a problem I suppose which is why we never leave anything out and lock everything up. My house near Progreso is right on the beach so it is quite isolated. I have hurricane shutters or heavy duty wood shutters on every window and door. When no one is here it is completely shuttered. We also have hurricane fire and theft insurance, but so far so good and no claims. We also have a local property manager who visits the house on a regular basis when we’re not here. I notice also the local or state police do drive bys at least once a day.

  • Jim Anderson

    Gotta love how a Liberal -Leftist journalist wants to import the stupid system that barely functions in Canada into Mexico. When was the last time you heard of someone going to Montreal for Dental Treatment? Lets do a one world order, Socialistic medicine for all and we can all die happier and sooner.

    • daniel pugh

      Just a heads up Jim. There is no universal dental care in Canada.

  • Commander Barkfeather

    Wow! Talk about killing the messenger! No where in the article does Ms. Adams express her own personal political views. She simply spent a few months in a small Mexican village interviewing local residents and put their opinions (not hers) into print. But to listen to the comments below, one would assume she is a communist infiltrator out to rob American retirees of their precious bodily fluids. Let’s continue on this road: she’s a Canadian! And they’re on the metric system! And you know what that means! A Godless lesbian! Get a grip.

    • lagasseaz

      I could not agree more. Makes me think these people are all suffering from chronic tooth pain making them very cranky indeed. Though I am not sure lynching qualifies as cranky and some of the comments seem mighty close to that. I live in Mexico and have lived on the border before that and have always gone to doctors and dentists in Mexico. I just had open heart surgery in Guadalajara. Just like anywhere there are good and bad and you do your research as best as possible. My take on the article is that the author may be a bit naive. These conditions exist all over Mexico (if not the world). The minimum wage here is even more useless than in the U.S. (communist!) And the abuse of the poor or of the indigenous is a sad fact. Overall I would have to say the money brought into the border towns from this is very much needed. All the small businesses pretty much dried up after 9/11.

    • cooncats

      It is obvious she “heard” what she wanted to hear. Her bias is unmistakable.

  • Happy Girl

    The cost of living is reflected in the cost of goods and services all around the world. Dental care, clothing, haircuts, electricians, you name it IS cheaper in Mexico than in the USA and Canada because of their cost of living.Gringos are often charged a higher rate than locals so is that racism on gringos by Mexicans? Even doctor visits and hospital services (in non-tourist areas) are inexpensive. The cost of living in the USA and Canada makes going to the dentist very, very expensive and their prices continue to rise. Seniors are always looking for ways to stretch a dollar (dental care is not covered in Canadian healthcare plans) and young people have it rough with a uncertain job market, growing families and medical insurance costs going thru the roof. Big business has moved their manufacturing to Mexico because of their low cost of living and low wages that reflects this. The cost of goods and services goes up approximately 10% each year in Mexico…but the US and Canadian dollar is rising against the peso making living and visiting Mexico a very good deal. As a side note…haggling with street vendors is expected and the vendor always wins…they are not offended by your low ball offer…it makes their day, they love the game…if you pay their asking price…You are a fool.

  • MortimerSnerd

    I live in La Huerta Jalisco Mexico. I find this slanted article oddly written, almost as if your doing no one a favor by going to Algodones. The only people who are losing out are the dental thieves in Canada or the USA,, and where only the wealthy can afford the dental cartel’s expensive services. My dentist is a dental surgeon who teaches specialized dentistry at the University of Guadalajara, he is more than qualified. A few years ago he charged me a $500 pesos (CA$35) for a filling, a procedure that would have cost me more than 5X as much in Canada. There is nothing unethical about going to a dentist in Mexico, especially when comparative dental services in Canada are completely un-affordable. This article is not doctoral quality material, maybe the student candidate should research why costs are so high in Canada, and what can be done about it instead of dumping on the dental tourism industry in Mexico.

  • Another gringo that goes to Mexico to “investigate” their own preconceived notions.

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