Have you ever been to Mosonmagyarovar? Thought of visiting Sopron? They’re two of Hungary’s hot new tourist destinations — but not for the scenery or the food. Hungary has more dentists per capita than any other country, and Mosonmagyarovar and Sopron have the highest concentration of dental clinics of any city.
Hungary’s post-communist elite, led by a flamboyant, well-connected oral surgeon, has developed a sector of skilled dentists. By charging bargain prices, they have created an internationally marketable product. The national government even includes a Medical Tourism Office. As one consultant put it: “In Switzerland, you get watches and chocolate. In Hungary you get dentistry.”
The story of how Hungary became “Europe’s dental chair” is a big part of a small, sharp new book — “Outpatients: The Astonishing New World of Medical Tourism” by Sasha Issenberg, a journalist and author of books on politics, economics and globalization. The book’s other main focus is Bulgaria, where Issenberg’s description of the booming business at Japanese-owned Tokuda Hospital Sofia includes this passage, typical of the book’s detail-packed, lively prose: “Eastern Europe was becoming a destination for Middle Eastern knees, and Tokuda became popular with patients from Oman, one of several Persian Gulf states suffering from abnormally frequent joint injuries. (The culprits appear to be stress from repeated bending at prayer along with the high rates of non-fatal car accidents that typically accompany a country’s belated motorization.)”
The medical tourism phenomenon hasn’t just come about as first-world patients seek cheaper care. Other participants come from less-developed countries with inferior medical options. Issenberg cites an Al Jazeera report that said Nigerians spend nearly $500 million a year on treatment in other countries: “There are people that have sold their houses in order to take somebody to India for treatment,” the director of a health-care-related agency says. And in some cases people are getting treatment that’s illegal in their home countries — most notably, sex-change surgery.
Issenberg touches briefly on other tourism destinations, including Israel, where the newspaper Haaretz coined the term “flying bodies” for the foreign patients. And you don’t even have to leave home to be part of the international medical system: Many X-rays taken in the United States, the book notes, are read online by radiologists in India.
The book is published by Columbia Global Reports, a new imprint from Columbia University that commissions writers to do on-site reporting and produce novella-length books on global issues. This one is 116 pages, plus unusually readable and useful endnotes. It reads like a magazine article — fast, entertaining and occasionally funny.