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The State of Chinese Private Practice Dentistry

While I was in Beijing, I wanted to get my tooth looked at. If you have been reading my blog regularly, you’ll remember that I chipped it in Lhasa. I asked Elyse if she knew of anyplace good. She gave me their name, but said that they were closed for the New Year and wouldn’t open until Monday — 2 days before we were hoping to leave. Monday we were going to visit the Great Wall — a trip that usually takes around 8 hours because of the horrible transportation to the part we wanted to see, so I was going to have to go to the dentist on Tuesday.

On Sunday night, the epoxy that the doctor in Lhasa had applied came out when I was eating at Pizza Hut. So I was broken for a couple of days, but I was good about brushing and rinsing so that nothing got stuck in the hole (picture). On Tuesday, I tracked down King’s Dental and caught a cab up there.

I knew immediately that I was out of my league, as this was the nicest dentist’s office I’d ever seen. The pleasant receptionist greeted me and informed me that the next day was the earliest I could have work done. I explained that I’d be headed to Mongolia and asked if there was any way it could be earlier. She said that I could get a cleaning done that day, but that wouldn’t have solved my problem. I asked to speak to a dentist to get their opinion and she motioned for me to have a seat in the waiting area, which looked more like a restaurant. She brought me some kind of rasberry flavored tea which was quite good.

In a few minutes, I was greeted by a young woman who spoke very good English. I explained my problem and showed her the affected tooth. She said that it would probably be OK until I got back from my trip if I were only going to be away from Beijing for a few days. So I had to explain that I wasn’t coming back and it’d be over a month before I’d be able to see a real dentist again. She agreed that something should be done and that she’d see if she could find someone to take care of it. Shortly she returned and said that it was alright, I could have work done. I was relieved.

The fee to see the dentist was 200 Yuan (~$25). I went back and sat in the nicest dentistry chair that I’ve ever seen, surrounded by some of the most modern technology that there is to be had. In the waiting area, I’d read a writeup about the dentist’s office that said they were trying to bring Beijing dentistry into the 21st century. They succeeded. The dentist poked and prodded and poked some more. She explained that I’d need to have it drilled out and filled in again properly. They had two options, one is a plastic like the one that I’d gotten in Lhasa, but probably better, the other option was to have them make a replica of the part I’d lost from ceramic right there on the spot. The ceramic option was 2500Y, the plastic 600Y. I figured that I might need more work on the tooth when I got back to the US, so I opted for the cheaper patch.

She began drilling with very clean and precise instruments, something that the dentist in Lhasa did not have to work with. After about 20 minutes, she was done and began the process of applying and setting the epoxy. During the entire procedure she took photographs for the records. After the epoxy had set up, she began shaping it and did an excellent job (picture). It feels nearly identical to my other tooth. She explained that I shouldn’t eat or drink anything too hot for about a week to allow the epoxy to completely set. I agreed, paid, and left.

On the whole of it, 800 RMB (just over $100) isn’t bad, considering the quality of care the I received. I’d gladly go to King’s Dental if it were in the US. In fact, if I were staying a few more days in Beijing, I would have gotten a cleaning and possibly even ceramic veneers put on. The prices were very reasonable, and the quality excellent.

The Current State of Chinese Military Dentistry

The other day I got a sweet potato from a street vendor. It was kind of cold and wasn’t too good, but it did give me the chance to visit the Chinese Military Hospital in Lhasa. At some point while eating the spud, I chipped one of my molars. It didn’t hurt, but I realized that I should probably do something about it. The Tibet Lonely Planet recommends the hospital as pretty much the only place to get modern medical treatment. Not so many choices, but at least there was one.

I hopped in a Taxi and, assisted by the correct spelling in Chinese for the hospital provided by the hotel clerk, made my way to what I what I had already resigned myself to being an expensive, painful, and crude treatment. When we got to the gate of the military complex, the driver must have explained that I had asked to come to the hospital, because the guard let us in.

I went into the plain looking building through the open door and was greeted by the dimmest of lighting. I asked the girl behind the glass if she spoke English, but she just shook her head. Luckily, a doctor walked by and asked what the problem was. I informed him that I had chipped a tooth and he explained it to the girl. She took my name and complaint and put it into a computer, then gave me a ticket to go see the dentist and explained that it was on the 3rd floor. I walked up the stairs in the nearly empty building, passing by rooms which looked like they had been neglected for years. When I got to the third floor, I proceeded into the dentistry area, which actually had reclining chairs and lights. This was a good sign. However, the fact that none of the three people in the room spoke English was not a good sign. The multiple stains on the wooden table used as a workbench was not either.

I handed the dentist my ticket and he motioned me over to a chair immediately. You don’t have to read outdated magazines in the waiting room when you are the only patient. I sat down, leaned back, and pointed back in my mouth. The dentist moved the light over my face and peered inside. “Ah,” he said. I think it was the sound of him discovering the problem, not a command for me to say the same. He called for one person to look on and began poking and scraping the afflicted tooth, while calling for another to bring him a tray. After poking and scraping for a while longer, he took the cloth off the top of the new tray and revealed a wide variety of drills and rusty tips. At this point I got a bit antsy.

He warmed up the drill a few times and approached my mouth. I held up my hand to stop him and played charades trying to get him to guess one of the following phrases: “May I have some anesthetic please?” “Hit me over the head with a mallet so I see little birdies.” or “Can we do this wild west style and I’ll drink a pint of whiskey first?” He eventually realized that I was apprehensive and got on the phone to someone. After a few minutes, a new dentist arrived who spoke a little bit of English. We talked a little bit and the new guy poked and scraped. He asked me more than once how long I would be in China, and seemed disappointed that I had only planned on staying another week or so. But this wasn’t small talk, it seems that it was going to take about a month to get the new crown made and put in!

That timeline royally screwed my plans for Mongolia and Russia, since I’d only have about a week to do both. I began trying to think of other ways around the problem, like not eating for the next few weeks and asked the dentist if there was anything else that could be done. He said that there wasn’t and that the pain would get worse. When I told him that I had no pain now, he looked surprised and called for another tray. He explained to me that if I had no pain, he could use some epoxy to seal up the hole until I got back home. That was a great plan and I immediately and enthusiastically agreed. The epoxy was even made in the US by a western pharmaceutical company!

After applying and shaping the new fake enamel — he did have to use the rusty drill then — I was all set to go. He seemed very pleased with his work, but I was even more so. This was a major problem averted. In the end it cost me only 13 Yuan, or less than $2! But more importantly, it meant that I could continue on the trip. As much as I enjoyed Lhasa, I didn’t want to be there for 6 weeks when there were Russian food and women waiting for me.

update: Here is a photo of my busted tooth.