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Tooth tourism in the new Europe

By CNN's Richard Quest

Quest
Richard Quest in the dentist's chair.

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SPECIAL REPORT
• Overview: Time of change
• Timeline: WWII to present
• Map: EU membership

SOPRON, Hungary (CNN) -- "It won't take a moment and it won't hurt."

Then, before I could gurgle, the drill was whirring and the filling was under way. Such is the industrial nature of the dentists of Sopron, a town on the Austrian-Hungarian border.

I had only popped in to find out why there were 400 dentists in a town of 50,000, but no matter. The next thing I heard was: "Open wide." I had cotton in my mouth and we were off with the drill to fix a cavity.

The reason they are all here is precisely because the town is so close to Austria and Germany.

The residents of those countries flock across in their thousands to get their dental work done at a fraction of the price charged at home. A crown is a quarter of the cost. A bridge can be done in a week and costs much less.

So in Sopron there are brass plaques galore on the high street offering dental services.

"The most important thing is the money," said Dr. Altorjay Kinga as she excavated my mouth. "It's a big difference between the prices."

Outside in her waiting room were half-a-dozen patients waiting their turn. None of them actually lived in Sopron, they had come across the border to see her.

Which considering this was a Saturday, when most dentists' surgeries are closed, was even more remarkable.

But Dr. Kinga is quick to point out that people don't choose their dentists by price alone. "If they couldn't get the good quality as well, then they wouldn't come to us," she argues.

The Austrian dentists have been fuming through the mouth for years about this, claiming that their Hungarian "colleagues" are taking advantage cheaper wages for dental technicians.

And darkly, hinting that standards might not be as high as expected in the European Union.

Dr. Kinga admits their technicians are cheaper, but there is another reason too why treatment is cheap. "We are satisfied with a little less money than the dentists in Austria," she says with frankness.

The Austrians hope this will change once Hungary joins the European union next month when they believe Hungarian dentists will face tougher regulations and costs.

That doesn't concern Dr. Szilagyi Laszlo whose hotel-cum-dental practice dominates the high street.

With seven fully equipped rooms, X-ray facilities and sophisticated implantology equipment, he seems to be running a dentist's factory.

Many of his patients will come for the weekend, and stay at his hotel while he completes complicated dental treatment.

"We have been preparing for EU membership long before the politicians came up with the idea. With good products and prices we can stay in the market." A former fencer, he literally flexes his muscles to me and boasts: "I like the fight."

The dentists of Sopron are here to stay. The town is capitalizing every which way it can on its head-start by rapidly turning itself into a full-service body treatment center.

One high street establishment offered three services -- dental work, hair styling and tattooing. Thankfully, it didn't say whether they were all done in the same chair at the same time!


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