By Genni Burkhart
If you drive along Interstate 8 in California headed towards Los Algodones, Mexico, the abundance of dental billboards will quickly clue you in that you're not headed towards a typical border town.
Proclaimed as the "Dental Capital of the World," aka "Molar City," Los Algodones sits just outside of Yuma, Arizona and takes up little more than 1-square-mile of space. However, don't let the small size fool you. The 5,000-resident town boasts over 350 dental offices and over 600 dentists, some of whom have trained in the United States at schools such as Harvard, NYU, UPenn, and UCLA. That's certainly a higher dentist-to-patient ratio than anywhere in the United States.
But what's the history of this place, how safe is it, and why are so many Americans (and Canadians) flocking here?
Recently, the Incisor featured an article about the rise in dental tourism. For this article, we'll look specifically at Molar City, a small Mexican town known for its friendly locals, welcoming atmosphere, and affordable dental care.
Molar City: A Brief History
Rising healthcare standards in mid-income countries such as Mexico, as well as the invention of the internet, have contributed to the remarkable growth of Molar City over the past 20 years.
However, the evolution of Los Algodones, from a small outlying border town to a booming dental destination, can be traced back to the work of Dr. Bernardo Magaña, D.D.S.
Bloomberg.com recently reported on Molar City and featured Dr. Magaña in their article. Now in his 90s, Dr. Magaña opened his first dental practice in 1968 and later added a dental school. He soon after became a "municipal delegate" and set out to clean up Los Algodones and improve its image. However, that came at a price.
In another feature article at Dentistry Today, Dr. Magaña explains how he soon became the target of bandits who kidnapped him and drained him of all his wealth. He quickly rebuilt his fortune by increasing the size of his ranch and growing some of the "best dates in the world." He also credits a fellow dentist, Dr. Carlos Rubio, for helping him and his family during this time of need.
Perhaps Dr. Magaña truly is the most interesting man in the world. As a former athlete and flyweight boxer, he now sticks close to home and claims Molar City is "the safest town in the world."
How safe is Molar City, and what standard of care can patients expect there?
While this event occurred 1,300 miles from Los Algodones in Matamoros along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, it's a central concern in Molar City. The town makes safety a key factor in attracting patients north of their borders, with some dental practices offering secured parking lots and private on-site hotels.
According to Francisco Lopez, a surgical medical assistant with nine years of experience working in Los Algodones, Americans, and Canadians can feel safe coming to Molar City because many of the dentists working there have trained in the U.S. and are using the same tools and technology available in the States.
Dr. Magaña claims there's no difference between the quality of his work and that of his counterparts in America and Canada (other than the price). He's also a member of the American Dental Association and was chosen to sit on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) certification committee of the Mexican Dental Association.
However, he won't go as far as stating that all the dentists in Molar City practice the same standard of care. In his 2011 interview for Dentistry Today, Dr. Magaña states, "In this town, you will find mostly good dentists, some of the best dentists in the country, and quite a few that I won't say anything about."
Poor Dental Coverage Drives Patients South
In the United States, oral healthcare is considered separate from medical care. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010, dental care for adults isn't currently included as an "essential health benefit." Most dental coverage is rudimentary at best, leaving more aging Americans without adequate dental coverage.
CareQuest Institute released data on oral health inequities in the U.S. in June 2022. Their 2nd annual State of Oral Health Equity in America survey found that 77 million adults in the U.S. did not have dental insurance. Recognized as the most comprehensive survey of its kind, disparities in oral health care for people of color, low-income, the uninsured, and veterans were the driving factors in the lack of affordable, accessible dental care in the U.S. (1).
Americans who visit Molar City report that the high cost and lack of adequate dental coverage in the United States (and Canada) are major factors in their decision to seek dental care in Mexico.
For example, one U.S. patient explained to France24.com that he's gladly been coming to Molar City for the past ten years for dental care. While he has health insurance, his dental insurance is lacking, a story many Americans can relate to. This patient reported that his dental procedure was quoted at over $35,000 in the U.S. However, the same dental treatment only cost him $6,000-$8,000 in Los Algodones.
With a root canal costing $250 and $500 for a crown, the boom of Molar City will only continue to rise. Ultimately, American citizens are strongly advised to perform their due diligence well in advance to confirm the quality and safety of all medical care outside the United States.
However, the affordability of dental care in America remains a complex issue that drives hundreds of thousands of patients to seek dental care in Molar City. While Los Algodones is outside U.S. laws and regulations, the procedures are significantly cheaper, and the sheer number of patients flocking south of the border proves people are willing to take the risk.
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Author: With over 13 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer, Genni Burkhart's career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides in Northern Colorado, where she works as the Editor in Chief of the Incisor at DOCS Education.
- CareQuest Institute for Oral Health, State of Oral Health Equity in America 2022. https://www.carequest.org/SOHEA2022