Mark Thompson

I couldn’t afford the dental work I needed, so I took a flight to the third world

With numerous dentists calling for a “Medicare style” system to make dental care more affordable, it reminded me of the time I travelled overseas to get the work done I couldn’t afford here. 

 

 

This morning, the ABC told the story of a dentist that travels to the far reaches of this country to treat those who are unable to secure regular dental services, be it cost or availability.

The dentist in question, Dr Jalal Khan, took the opportunity to push for his expertise to be covered by an umbrella system similar to Medicare, stating “…there is definitely a need for there to be a universal dental scheme that is delivered by federal government,” he said.

As a member of the city folk, I agree, but our problem lies in far more opaque terms. The opportunity is available, or, to be more accurate, the myth of it exists. Dentists dot the landscape, it’s part of the daily cut-and-thrust. If you have money for private health cover, you have no excuse. I grew up poor, so a polish-and-a-clean took a backseat to food being on the table, and clothes on my back. As a result, I passed through public and high school without a trip to the dentist.

The first year of University saw me in the dentist chair but instantly priced out of what needed to be done. Two wisdom teeth needed removing, another four needed crowns. So, my teeth again were shuffled down the list of priorities. Beyond graduation came employment, and with that, private health cover, one that promised to cover dental charges, but came up well short, considering that I now required major dental surgery; despite the money spent on premiums, and the time spent waiting through the required waiting periods.

In the interim, between dental visits, I collected anecdotal evidence as well as plaque. There was the friend who told me that his replacement tooth cost more than his car, and my then-partner told me that my teeth were going to fall out.

I couldn’t afford it, so what was I to do?

The answer, of course, lay in the heat of the third world. The concept of “dental tourism” has long taken root in America, as those without healthcare travel to elsewhere to seek the procedures they require. However, the avarice of their health system is well known, one that we compare ours to, and laugh heartily at our socialised medicine, and treatment for all.

A midnight budget airline sale later, I found myself at Kuta’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, a strange combination of ancient Indonesian cobblestone and imitation Western eateries. Between a meeting of these two worlds, I found my connection to Ubud, a man with culottes as pristine as his smile, who hooked my bag off my shoulder and welcomed me into the back of his minivan and his country with a single question, “are you staying in Bali long?”

Sadly, the answer was no. I was only staying for tomorrow’s appointment.

As the furious movement of Ubud gave way to the quiet verdancy of rice paddies and the unfamiliar, I found myself tussling with my entitlement, and the irony of my situation. I was from the lucky country, yes, the one with boundless plains to share, but I had to travel beyond it to receive the medical coverage I needed, but could not afford. The fine people of Ubud experience true poverty, and one must forever recognise what they’ve taken for granted, and pleasant scooter ride and welcome notwithstanding, my odyssey seemed to be a couple of needless steps too far.

Upon winding myself up through the jungle-covered hills, carried by the smooth roads, bordered by the hodgepodge of terraced bungalows, I found myself at the clinic. The clinic was a towering building of white, glass and gloved guards; one that named itself an “aesthetic institute”, attached to a similarly aesthetic hotel, one erected with the richest of the needy in mind. On the gate, the word “BaliWood” was immortalised in gold.

Clearly, I was at the end of the river, but this compound had air conditioning and muzak. As I was lead through the front door (after my thrice dropped backstreet scooter had been parked by the pristinely dressed valet), I was greeted in English, completely without an accent, and I was directed in my chair. Those who shared the waiting room greeted me with knowing eyes. They wore the same uniform as I, shirt unbuttoned the navel, helmet hair, wooden beads slung on their wrists. One was from Melbourne, the other from Adelaide.

The service itself was fine. The dentists professional, and the work lasting. But the fact that I was in a five-star health resort and it was nearly six times cheaper than what my dentist said it would cost, should be the take-home lesson.

The horror, indeed.

 

 

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