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Tourists Say Mexican Town Is Good for What Ails You

Commerce: Cut-rate doctors and dentists have turned Los Algodones into Club Medical. Is there a trade-off?

March 11, 1999|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"As you could imagine, a patient going to a dentist in Mexico would not be subject to the same sort of legal recourse or regulations or, perhaps, infection control procedures that they would be able to access with a dentist in the United States," said Lynne Randolph, spokeswoman for the California Dental Assn. She said the same considerations apply to any overseas dental care.

Los Algodones dentists chafe at suggestions that their work is inferior. They say most of the materials they use come from the same firms supplying dentists on the U.S. side. They insist that dentists in Los Algodones, many of whom advertise their alma mater in the front window, are as well-schooled and regulated as those in the United States.

"We're on par. We have specialists who are very well-trained and professional," said Bernardo Magana Padilla, an oral surgeon and dean of the town's dentistry corps.

Magana and others concede that the explosion in the number of dentists has drawn some fly-by-night practitioners offering bargain basement rates, even by Los Algodones measures. But Magana said those belonging to the local dental college must comply with strict standards for professionalism.

Word of Mouth Advertising

The first dentist in town when he set up shop 30 years ago, Magana eventually found himself swamped with patients and recruited other dentists to join him. The ranks of dentists swelled since 1990 as word of low-cost care spread among the growing flocks of retirees descending on the region between El Centro and Yuma.

Magana's thriving practice has expanded into a miniature empire. His complex now includes a pharmacy, coffee shop, perfumery and liquor store. He posts signs inviting tourists to a Mexican rodeo at his horse ranch outside town.

Magana's clientele is 100% foreigners. Though cheap by U.S. and Canadian standards, the fees charged by most dentists are too steep for most Los Algodones residents, who rely on government-run clinics or go without dental care.

The burgeoning foreigners' market remains a strong magnet for young dentists and physicians. This is the rookie season for Guadalupe Montoya Garcia, a recent graduate of the Autonomous University of Baja California in Mexicali. She and a partner opened their dental office in a new plaza in hopes of breaking into what for a dentist with a Mexican degree is a lucrative market.

It's a building year--the daily patient load is still in the single digits. Still, Montoya said, "it's the best place for dentists."

Local officials say this brand of medical tourism provides more of an economic boon than assembly plants paying minimum wage. How many more dentists can be shoehorned in is anyone's guess.

Garcia, the municipal leader, said growth will hinge on the quality of care and the continued favor of snowbirds with smiles to repair. "It all depends on supply and demand," he said.

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