There was a time when Americans crossing the border into Mexico were in search of serapes, woven blankets, leather belts, boots and cheap margaritas. Times have changed. Sure, margaritas are still high on the list, but more and more Americans are making a trip to the Mexican dentist their first priority...

There are supporters and opponents to border dentistry; horror stories and high praise - depending on who is telling the story. While there is no question that a visit to a Mexican border dentist is less costly than a visit to their American counterparts, there remains, for some, the question of whether the service is as professional, as sanitary or as safe.

The truth is, not many years ago there was a vast difference between the quality of dental services offered on opposing sides of the Rio Grande. To begin with, dentists in Mexico are required to have a federal license to practice their trade. In the U.S., states maintain rigid licensing requirements and exercise more control of uniform practices. And until recent years, technology was lagging in Mexican medical clinics.

Allegations of unsanitary dental clinics and less-than-qualified dental service providers and technicians were not always unfounded. In fact, in years past, qualified Mexican dentists aspired to open offices in Mexico City, Monterey, Veracruz, and other major metropolitan centers, while less qualified or less experienced dentists were relegated to border towns and rural communities where they could gain practical experience.

In recent years however, that trend has reversed, with many high-quality Mexican dentists opting to locate in border towns in order to cater to U.S. patients.

Times have changed on both sides of the border. While there are still reports of unqualified or under qualified health professionals practicing medicine and dentistry in Mexican border towns, one has only to drive through large urban centers in U.S. cities to find similar problems. With an influx of Korean, Chinese, Indian and Pakistani dentists into the United States, many have set up offices in ethnic neighborhoods, often performing services without a license.

For the most part, some of the greatest advances in dental service and treatment  have occurred on the Mexican side of the border in recent years. That may be because not long ago they were so far behind the standard, while their American counterparts were more likely to embrace newer technologies and find the financing needed to acquire state-of-the-art equipment.

But a visit to one of hundreds of dental clinics in communities like Nuevo Progreso, near McAllen/Pharr, reveals the gap is closing rapidly.

It's no longer rare to find a dental clinic in a border town that offers quality, professional service, qualified technicians, and superior equipment for diagnosis and treatment.

But, just like in the United States, that doesn't mean you should trust just any clinic or dentist. Because of language and custom barriers, many North Americans simply don't know how to determine if a Mexican border clinic or dental professional is qualified and safe. But there are a handful of rules to follow to help you make that determination with a degree of confidence.

First and primary on your list should be talking to U.S. patients of a particular dentist or clinic. In other words, if you can get a good recommendation from someone who has patronized a particular dentist, then chances are good your experience is going to be a good one. But be aware, Mexican dentists have the option of renewing their federal license every five years. If you're visiting a border clinic cold turkey, then ask to see their license renewals and certifications. Most reputable border dentists post their licenses prominently in their offices, just like U.S. dentists.

If you're concerned about technology or sanitary conditions, ask for a tour of the dental clinic. Most Mexican dentists are more than happy to show their facilities. Most, in fact, take great pride in providing a clinic equivalent to U.S. standards.

Finally, inquire about U.S. insurance certification. Because of a large number of fraud cases in past years, some U.S. insurance companies will not honor work performed in a Mexican clinic. But many Mexican dentist do accept and are qualified to receive insurance support. Inquire before your first examination to be clear about what the dentist will and will not accept.

There's no simple rule for determining if a Mexican dental clinic is right for you. If you throw out most of the myths, like border towns are totally unsafe or that Mexican dentists don't have a license to practice, then you will probably find visiting a Mexican dentist is a safe and cost effective alternative to spiraling dental costs in the United States.

For a short list of qualified dentist in the Rio Grande Valley border region, visit our sister Web site and consult the dental directory.