The first reaction I normally get from foreigners when I tell them I’ve been to the dentist in China is one of incredulity followed by a shudder; ‘You went to the dentist here?’ I have to say I can’t blame them.
Since I first traveled to rural Yunnan in 2010 and witnessed the gut wrenching and terrifying sight of a street dentist - picture a teenage-looking girl, in jeans, brandishing a dental drill in the middle of a market where, among other things, live poultry was for sale - I had experienced a slow trickle of fear every time I thought about it.
Source: Partha S. Sahana
However, after two years of saving any dentist visits for my annual trip home, I could avoid it no longer; I had a toothache, and it was only going to get worse. Fortunately I live in Beijing, where there are a range of services to suit every budget and I put paid to my fears by rationalizing that in a city of nearly 20 million people- that’s at least 600 million teeth-there must be someone out there who could do the job.
Since then I have had both root canal therapy and a wisdom tooth extraction, and I not only survived, my experiences were positive. So for any of you who are hesitating about visiting the dentist in China, here’s some limited wisdom from a dentist-phobic expat, to help you take the plunge.
1) Prevention apparently isn’t better than cure
Unless you go to a very expensive western-style dentist, the modus operandi of the average Chinese dentist is less ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and more ‘if you’re not in unbearable pain, just ignore it, until you are.’ Diagnosis and prevention of future problems aren’t the main focus of local Chinese dentist clinics and most people only visit the dentist after a problem has become serious. Therefore, if you feel a twinge or any kind of problem coming on and you are told that you don’t need treatment, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security; although the problem isn’t serious now, it is still likely to emerge as a much bigger (and more painful) problem later on.
2) Ask for anesthetic
As a wimpy foreigner who is used to getting a shot of Novocaine for almost every dental procedure, I was horrified when on my first ever Chinese dental appointment, the dentist sat me down and immediately came at me with a drill without so much as a how-do-you-do. When I stopped her and asked about the anesthetic, she shrugged and informed me that I could have anesthetic, if I really wanted it, but it would cost an extra 30 RMB – a price I happily paid for a pain-free experience.
People from the US who are used to being knocked out during dental procedures won’t be able to find this except in top of the range clinics attached to western hospitals and this can be extremely costly – one quote from a famous foreign hospital in China put a root canal under Nitrous Oxide at 6,000 RMB, and prices can climb from there depending on the procedure. So this is only really an option if you have a great insurance plan, or cannot have local anesthetic for other medical reasons.
3) You can Tuangou it!
For those of you that haven’t yet discovered the magic of Tuangou, it’s like GroupOn in the west. It’s a website where you can buy discount vouchers for anything from cinema tickets, to gym membership to beauty treatments and (you guessed it)... dental procedures! You can buy a range of dental services such as teeth whitening, teeth cleaning and filling replacements for only a fraction of the walk-in price.
It’s not as dodgy as it sounds-well respected dental chains such as Jiamei Dental who operate in Shanghai, Beijing and Dalian, have a range of discounted services available on websites such as Meituan, so this is a great option if you need minor, or cosmetic treatments.
So what are your options?
The range and quality of service will vary according to the price of the clinic, but there are various options available to suit every budget:
Most local Chinese people will go to the hospital for their dental work as it is considered the cheapest and most reliable option. If you go to a good and well respected hospital, the services will be reliable and invariably be a lot cheaper than a private clinic.
Anyone who is familiar with the procedure of going to a Chinese hospital will already know the drill; going to the dentist is pretty much the same as any other routine hospital trip. You will first need to register and then navigate the labyrinthine halls to find your way to the correct department.
As with all hospital visits, this will include a lot of queuing and wandering around, so is best undertaken with a trusted local friend if your Mandarin isn’t particularly strong, and isn’t highly recommended if you are in a lot of pain and in need of urgent care. One thing to note is that the bedside manner of the doctor won’t necessarily be what you’re used to; Chinese doctors are extremely busy and need to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you’re already apprehensive about the procedure, don’t expect to be coddled.
Local Private Clinics
As soon as you learn the word 口腔(oral - kǒuqiāng) you will notice that dentists are absolutely everywhere, as most of them will have these characters in their name. Smaller local Chinese clinics are plentiful in most cities and will greatly vary in terms of price and service.
I needed a root canal and after an extremely unsuccessful hour wandering aimlessly around Chaoyang hospital, I gave up and decided to check out some local clinics. The most expensive quote I was given was 2,000 RMB and the cheapest was 500 RMB. Being a cheapskate, I opted for the 500 RMB one and the (scarily young looking) dentist did a quick and professional job. I later had it checked out by my UK dentist who said that it was perfectly good and there was nothing to worry about.
However, as I mentioned above, I ran into problems when I returned with another toothache and they couldn’t diagnose the problem, so I had to go to another, more expensive clinic to find out what was wrong.
These kind of clinics are fine for simple procedures, fillings and teeth cleanings etc, or if you already know exactly what the problem is and can basically diagnose yourself, but for more serious and complicated problems, you may have to fork out the extra cash to get it treated at a more expensive clinic.
This includes Chinese top of the range Chinese clinics as well as clinics attached to international hospitals. Most will have western or western trained staff and all the dental assistants, nurses and dentists will speak great English.
I went to an international clinic in Beijing to have a wisdom tooth extraction, which cost 1,200 RMB. The service was excellent- I was extremely nervous and the nurse actually held my hand throughout the process and put me completely at ease beforehand.
Afterwards, when the extraction site got infected, they gave me a check up and prescribed antibiotics for free. A couple of days later, I also received a follow up phone call to check how I was, which was also extremely reassuring.
Again, prices at these clinics will be high, so if you can’t afford the procedure, you could first have an examination for around 150 RMB to ascertain what the problem is and then go to a cheaper clinic for the actual treatment.
wǒ yǒu我有… (I have)
yá tòng牙痛 (toothache)
yádòng 牙洞 (cavity)
wǒ yào我要… (I need)
báyá 拔牙 (extraction)
xǐyá 洗牙 (cleaning)
bǔyá 补牙 (filling)
yáchǐ měibái 牙齿美白 (teeth whitening)
gēn guǎn zhìliáo 根管治疗 (root canal treatment)
zhào piànzi照片子 (take X-ray)
hǎo tòng a! 好痛啊! (that hurts!)
Whatever you decide to do, the most important thing is that you feel comfortable during your experience and you get the best possible treatment. Don’t forget to shop around and compare as prices can vary wildly from place to place and you should be able to get a good treatment without breaking the bank. However, when push comes to shove you should make the best decision for yourself- after all, you can’t put a price on good health.
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Keywords: Expats Guide to Oral Care in China Dentist in China
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10 Comments Add your comment
I had two root canal treatments done in Beijing over the last few years. First time I "played it safe" and went to an international clinic. Surprisingly little English was spoken but the price sure was international. They did a decent job though. Second time I went to a dentist that I would categorize as high-end local. You have to be able to speak some Chinese if you opt for one of those places but even at the place I went to there was a dentist who had studied in Russia and could speak really good English. They also did a really nice job and had all the newest equipment. Price was around 40% cheaper than international clinic. Actually I kind of prefer going to the dentist in China compared to Europe. It is really insanely expensive in Europe and many clinics don't have the newest equipment. If you avoid the cheapest clinics in China there's a good chance that they will be better than most European ones.
Oct 20, 2014 21:04 Report Abuse
I have been living in China for many years now. The dental service in China is not as bad but not the best either. Thanks to my dental condition , I only had to visit dentist once in my a decade stay in China. My visit was uneventful, all i needed to do was scaling.
Oct 22, 2014 18:14 Report Abuse
Rather than risk having a Chinese witch doctor put unsterlized instruments in my mouth, I took a weekend trip to Seoul to see a real dentist. My colleague flew to Bangkok one weekend to get a root canal. If you can afford to leave China for proper medical treatment, then do it. I wouldn't trust these people to put a bandaid on me.
May 09, 2017 15:13 Report Abuse
Two crowns molded and placed on my teeth. Annual cleaning in local clinics. Never a bad experience and the price has always been great. I just wish more Chinese would learn to brush their teeth daily and take better care of their teeth. That is not most frightening part of Chinese dental issues.
May 16, 2017 17:29 Report Abuse
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