Panama is a popular destination for “medical tourism,” especially for dentistry. The price of getting your teeth fixed in Panama is significantly lower than in the States or Canada, and probably than in many other countries as well. However, unless you are in the City of Panama, finding a dentist can be intimidating. First of all, you want to be sure your dentist is competent. Although the quality of dental schools attended by Panamanian dentists is mostly on a par with those attended by US dentists (often the exact same schools), the quality of individual dentists varies. Just as it does in any other country, including the US.
For Medical Tourists, one extra qualification usually desired is fluent English. This is not so tough to find in the City of Panama, but can be a bit more of a challenge in the interior. So I was very pleased when a poll of my fellow expats turned up The Dental Office in Chitré. This clinic is owned by Dr. Jose M. Villalez G. (Vee-ya-lez). It houses what appear to be dozens of specialists and general dentists under one convenient roof. (Full address and contact info at the bottom of this article.) My friends told me they had been quite happy with the service, and that some of the dentists spoke really good English, some spoke a little, and some none at all. However, Dr. Villalez spoke English, they said. And so he does. As do many of the other dentists.
I went in with two objectives. Even though every dentist I have ever met has been a very nice person and not one of them has ever threatened me, like lots of other people with teeth, I’m still nervous about visiting one. Perhaps it is some kind of racial memory dating back to the long era of pliers and no anesthesia. In any event, I hate getting my teeth cleaned and, as a highly skilled procrastinator, I successfully put off going and put it off and put it off. I managed to do so for five years, in spite of the fact that a routine cleaning is usually $25, even without the pensionado discount. I had no excuse, just a lot of fear.
Then, I got an infection in my mouth. I also came down with some kind of nasty lung congestion that I feared might be related. So that needed fixing and the pearlies needed to be cleaned like you wouldn’t believe. Other expat neighbors here who had suffered from infections passed along various names with mixed reviews, but the one that kept getting good marks was Dr. Jose Villalez clinic, The Dental Office. So I girded my loins, grabbed a friend to hold my hand, and set out to both deal with the infection and get my teeth cleaned, or “die trying.”
See, one of the things about dentists and doctors in Panama is that mostly they do walk-ins. The people here don’t seem to think in terms of appointments. So you get to the office as early as you can and wait in line until they open, then file in and put your name on the sign-in sheet. And wait, and wait, and wait.
However, The Dental Office also takes appointments! I emphatically recommend an appointment, if you can get one. The first time I went, I just went, because I had managed to achieve a state of low resistance and didn’t want to lose that by waiting however many days and having it build up again. The office is open from 8:30 to 11:30, closes for lunch, then reopens from 2:00 pm until 5:00 pm. I managed to get there at 11:35, so my friend and I went to lunch, too. When we returned at 1:30 the line was already long. So, if you choose to do a walk-in, first hot tip: get there early. And be sure to admire the (not entirely reassuring to those with “nerves”) statue of a “dentist” in front of the building.
The office is pleasant, with a large, well-lit reception area and plenty of comfortable seating. The walls feature a tooth-shaped clock and a number of lovely paintings by Dr. Villalez himself, a charming fellow who, I repeat, speaks English as promised.
The doctors were most concerned when I told them I had an infection. Before I saw Dr. Villalez, I saw two others and had two sets of x-rays taken because the first set didn’t seem to show anything. Everyone was puzzled by the x-rays. Everyone tapped on all my molars, peered and poked inside my mouth most expertly, and wondered aloud why I had no pain. I told them it had stopped hurting. I had been washing my mouth with hydrogen peroxide and that at first I had foamed up like a rabid dog. There was definitely infection, I insisted, and, I sighed, I was resigned to losing a couple of teeth. The result was that I was given a referral to the root canal specialist for two days hence, which was as soon as I could be fitted in. Depending on what the root canal specialist had to say, I would then see a crown specialist, or not.
Meanwhile, although I could not understand why, I was told that no, I didn’t need to take antibiotics for the infection.
When I returned for my appointment with the root canal doctor, I was practically whisked into the examination room. My experience from that point would not match most folks’, there is no doubt of that. There, the doctor studied the x-rays, poked and tapped and prodded, ordered some more x-rays and then told me the teeth in question had no cavities, the roots were in great shape, and that I had probably had developed a gum infection, which the hydrogen peroxide had cleared up. If the infection reappeared, I was to belay the hydrogen peroxide and get myself back to the office as fast as possible so they could figure out what was going on. Meanwhile, except for a heavy layer of plaque, my teeth were in great shape.
Since walk-ins are no problem at The Dental Office, I opted to be one again and just go whole-hog. I would get the chompers cleaned as long as I was already there. A brief wait and I was in a different chair with wonderful Dr. Iglesia, who spoke to me in perfect English. When I cringed away from his pressure washer machine with the cold, cold water, he decided to dig me out manually, “so that it would not hurt so much.” A lovely tooth-side manner, has Dr. Iglesia. After the expected lecture on proper dental hygiene, and a promise from me to floss daily and not neglect future cleaning, I was released back into the wild.
The entire experience was such a step up from what I expected. So was the cost. The first day I was examined by three different dentists, at least one of whom was a specialist, and had two sets of x-rays done for the “infected” molars. The second day I saw two different specialists, got a full set of x-rays and had a deep cleaning of some seriously plaque-y teeth. The whole thing set me back an entire $108, after the pensionado discount of fifteen percent.
Contact Information for The Dental Office
CLINICA DR JOSE M VILLALÁZ G (THE DENTAL OFFICE)
Spadafora Carmelo Ave Chitre, Panama
Tel: (507) 9966561