How to Get Your Teeth Cleaned in Italy (and be Traumatized Forever)

As much as I love being self-employed, there are definitely some downsides. I miss those paid vacation days, and Christmas bonuses, but most importantly I really, really miss having health insurance.

You see our current US health care system is majorly messed up. Majorly. At this point it’s far safer and cheaper for Mike and I to live outside of the United States and purchase medical services as we need them than to live in our own country and pay out the nose for freelance health insurance (or worse: not have insurance and risk bankruptcy over a broken arm).

I could rant on about this, but I’ll spare you guys.

Fortunately up to this point we’ve been pretty healthy (knock on wood), but we couldn’t ignore the fact that we really, really needed a teeth cleaning. We’re pretty paranoid about dental health and brush, floss and mouthwash daily, but at some point you need to get a specialist in there. After a few calls around the DC area we learned that pretty much all local dentists require expensive xrays for first time clients, meaning that this simple maintenance procedure would run us hundreds of dollars. Not really in the budget right now.

Then I had a (seemingly) brilliant idea! Why not get our teeth cleaned while we were in Rome in February? It had to be cheaper than the US.

It was a terrible idea. Cheaper yes, but oh did we pay. But just in case you are a masochist too, here is how to get your teeth cleaned in Rome:

  1. Through a simple Google search, find a dental office that caters specifically to expats in Rome. The speak english! How bad could this be? 50 Euros for a teeth cleaning (versus $300+) at home is too good to resist. Call and make an appointment.
  2. Arrive at the office, a basement apartment in a dark sketchy neighborhood, at 6:30 PM on a Friday night. Nervously joke about Saw movies but ring the bell anyways. Be greeted by the dentist, a warm Indian-Italian woman wearing scrubs. Downstairs find a bright and inviting waiting room, except for this:

    Totally normal not at all ominous painting.
  3. Nervously flip through British Cosmo while the dentist (we’ll now refer to her as Dr. Doom), finishes up with her previous patient. Whatever procedure he’s having seems to involve a lot of yelling in Italian and some crashing sounds. Tell Mike he’s definitely going first.
  4. Dr. Doom apologizes, her assistant is pregnant which apparently means she doesn’t have to work for nine months. Doom’s doing everything on her own. We nod understandingly. Mike disappears into the back room, where I can still hear every excruciating detail. Dr. Doom goes through his admission forms asking many medically relevant questions like:“Is your family Italian?”“You do web design, can you fix my website?”

    “Your girlfriend is a writer??”

    Finally around 7:15 she appears ready to start the cleaning.

  5. Am jolted out of my chair by a screech of (I kid you not) “MAMMA MIA! Look at these teeth!”
  6. “Hey Writer, get back here!” I wander into the examination room where the cleaning has still not started. Since her assistant is out she wants me to help her take a picture of Mike’s teeth by using terrifying mouth clamps to keep his mouth pried open while she fiddles with her camera.I hold the mouth clamps in position, stretching Mike’s poor cheeks. “Wider! Wider!” she yells at me. I start to feel like I’m in a Stanley Milgram experiment but finally she gets her photo. She forces the both of us to look at huge blown-up photos of the plaque on Mike’s teeth. It’s…uncomfortably intimate. She tells us that we clearly don’t know how to floss, and need to attend her very special Flossing School: Just four sessions at 40 Euros a class! What a bargain.
  7. I beg to go back to the waiting room while Mike’s teeth cleaning continues with much ranting rising over the sounds of drilling. Not too sure what’s going on until I hear Mike begging for novocaine. Novocaine for a teeth cleaning? What a wimp I think. She finally gives it to him after charging him an extra 17 euros for the shot.
  8. All of a sudden the office is filled with the sound of dogs barking. A whole hungry pack of them! Dr. Doom drops everything and rushes into another room. I sneak in to visit Mike who is still sitting in the chair, half done, with blood on his bib. “What is she doing to you?” He just shrugs.
  9. Finally it’s my turn. By now it’s past 8 PM and my anxiety is only superseded by the fact that I am starving. I sit down in the chair, but instead of opening my mouth Dr. Doom bustles about, showing me pictures of her 5 dachshunds, telling me how she needs to find a “new husband,” and just generally chit chatting. I fight the urge to scream.
  10. Finally she gets to work on my teeth… at which point I start to regret all the life choices that lead me to this point. I am no dentist, I don’t know what exactly she was doing in my mouth, only that it felt like no cleaning I’d ever sat through and man did it HURT. Her powerbrush feels like it was going to knock my teeth straight out of my head as it whirs and screeches.Now here is where it get’s gross: As Dr. Doom grinds my teeth and babbles on about Berlusconi (“I love him! I mean, I know he was caught with those women, but at least they were WOMEN, am I right?”), my mouth starts to fill with blood. A LOT of blood. “Ack! So much blood!” she exclaims, wiping at my mouth, “It’s like a horror movie here.” I nod meekly. Blood is basically overflowing out of my mouth and down my chin.5 agonizing minutes later: “There’s too much blood, I can’t see what I’m doing- I guess you are done!” she announces finally as I try not to cry. She releases me and wanders off to check on her dogs.
  11. We pay, skillfully evade a second pitch for Flossing School and book it out of there as fast as possible.At this point Mike and I can only look at each other in complete and utter horror. “You have blood on your forehead,” he whispers, eyes like saucers. It’s now 9:30 at night and we are dying of hunger so we make a bee line to our favorite neighborhood restaurant for heaping plates of pasta carbonara.

    Get in my mouth immediately

Two days later my teeth STILL hurt (that’s normal right?). I’ve had my teeth cleaned at least once a year for most of my life and I’ve never experiences what ever that was. Pretty sure my next trip to the dentist is going to have to involve heavy sedatives.

I still do think medical tourism is a viable option, you just have to choose your destination carefully. Mike got a cavity filled in Thailand and found it a very pleasant and cheap experience. When it comes to health care I wouldn’t say it’s you get what you pay for, maybe you get WHERE you pay for.

All I know is I’m never doing THAT again.

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53 thoughts on “How to Get Your Teeth Cleaned in Italy (and be Traumatized Forever)”

  1. hi!to all the fellow readers, i would really suggest to look out for a proper dentist /doctor before you commence or opt for a treatment. the description of the location of this apartment clinic was sketchy in itself.and yeah, pregnant assistant is no reason for absense of an assistant.its all about pay and get another assistant,simple. always check out for the degree and education of doctor and also if he/ she is registered and a licensed practitioner.medical tourism is a good option and a thriving industry and it can be a real joyful experience too.i am personally involved in the industry and have many clients from USA, spain, italy and middle, always cjeck before making an appointment.(P.S. i am a practising Endodontist(root canal and restorative specialist) in India with a wide overseas experience and know this trade).

  2. I almost want to feel bad for you.. But I don’t. What made you think that you could get a good professional cleaning for 50 euro? I currently live (been here for 5 years) in the USA but I was born and raised in italy. I still haven’t found a dentist office that could compare to the one I used to go to back home. I’m sure that with your small $50 budget you would find a horrible dentist here in the states too. You get what you pay for, next time don’t be so cheap 😉

  3. Lol steph. your story cracks me up! born in china and raised in illinois, i sure hear an earful of how awful a doctor’s visit can be in china from my parents. i dont know much about italy but in china, people dont have a primary doctor or a dentist, and they always go to an hospital. i was really nervous about getting my teeth cleaned in shanghai when i was studying abroad there for a year. luckily, it wasnt as bad as i thought. actually, that was an understatement. it was pretty good (at least i didnt have blood all over my mouth). to my surprise (or not), people in china dont have health insurance. a regular cleaning was like 100 something yuan or 25 us bucks, and my chinese friends did complain about how expensive it was, just like people do in america. i think some issues transcend borders.

    america’s healthcare system might be corrupted. but with a health insurance, i do enjoy the high quality service, which is not available even in some advanced economies with universal healthcare system. so most of the time, im still appreciative of the fact that i pay for people who work their ass off thru college and then expensive med schools (altho sometimes i do wonder if my doctor is trying to rip me off. my first year into work, i bought the cheapest health insurance available and then, damn, i broke my right elbow playing baseball. the doctor requested a x-ray, a cat scan, and two x rays a couple weeks later. the cat scan itself cost me AN ARM and a leg).

  4. As an Italian my advice is the same i would give for restaurant:
    always go where locals go!
    There’s people who take advantage of expats and tourist (taxi driver theory), in case you need some doctor’s better to ask someone you know info about it. They will probably call they own and take an appointment for the end we’re kind people 😉

  5. 20% of dentists in Italy are totally unqualified and illegal. When they are found and charged, the fine is only a few hundred Euro, so they go elsewhere and set up all over again.

    It sounds from this story as if you were treated by one of those. I have had my teeth cleaned here in Italy several times and, although it is invariably painful and unpleasant, it does not come close to what you describe.

    Actually, the 20% of dentists who are illegal are only part of the problem. The main problem is the 80% who are legal, but most of whom are NOT competent or who recommend unnecessary but expensive procedures just to make money.

    If I told you my dentists story, it would run on for pages and scarcely be believable. Moreover, I am not the only one in Italy how has such stories.

    The moral is that if you are in Italy, it is best to get your treatment back in your own country or somewhere else if at all possible.

  6. Sorry for your experience however, I think it is unfair to generalize dentistry in Italy based on this experience. Unfortunately these things happen right here in North America as well. Be smart about the choices you make and if something seems off, it most likely is. No one should be receiving health care out of a basement.

    1. The office was in a basement but it was a legitimate dentist’s office. We chose this dentist because she was highly recommended an an expat message board. Maybe she was just having an off night, maybe she was a loon, who knows?

      1. Hi I posted earlier on this and as I said I also met this very same dentist and found the same recommendation you did. She wanted to keep me for 1 hours consultation just to look at my wisdom tooth? It was a load of baloney quite frankly as since then I saw 2 other dentists In Umbria at the hospital near where my parents live and they looked at it very quickly and seemed to know what the deal was. No need for a lengthy consultation. I got my Panoramic xray done straight away as the dentist himself called the dept which was nearby to take the xray there and then. I was happy and impressed but as it happens that dentist was moved and then I had to see another who has now referred me to hospital and pointed out that although it might look simple I would be in better hands with better equipment, facilities and more than one person present. Yes it’s been a lengthy process but I hope to be taken care of at the hospital in May.

  7. Hi just found this blog before I too ended up at this dental practice…AHhhh! You know how I know it’s the same place?! Thanks to your photo of the scary painting and description of basement location. It slowly dawned on me and as I waited and waited for her to get of the phone I decided to make an excuse and run for my life-no joke! I have had a bad experience like yours once before and it was in my home town. I owe you one! I was in for a tooth extraction consultation and she had already bullshitted me about the Xray and that the surgeon would have to check if I needed a full scan Xray, well this was my feeling anyway. I think a wisdom tooth extraction would have been expensive and she could have just looked at them to see that they are impacted into my gum making it a lot trickier. I’m now going via the hospital as I really don’t have much faith in the private system here. Thanks.

  8. Great read. Sounds terrifying. Not sure if I’ll ever look up dentists on the internet now after that. It did sound like an engenious idea to begin with!

  9. Ahahaha, it looks like you went to a butcher dentist with little experience!
    Teeth cleaning in the north of Italy costs 80-100€ and it’s not so painful unless you have REALLY bad teeth. You should have asked for advice from local Roman people, instead of worrying about the language issue.

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