Turkey Teeth and Harem Hair, Is medical tourism lengthening our waiting lists? – Puncher O’Toole

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I took a short trip to Istanbul in June. When I last visited in 2016, I had reason to be concerned. My concern was, it seems, misplaced and misjudged and my hopes that things would get better were granted. In 2016 there was an attempted military coup and since then things have generally gotten worse; an economic crisis in Turkey created by the financial ignorance of its lifetime president Tayyip Erdogan, the proximity of a tragic war in Ukraine, and the emergence of more extreme elements of Islamic culture and values. Atatürk’s liberal ideals are unfortunately eroding. Yet the crowds have returned, the bazaars are doing good business and the atmosphere is very optimistic. During my previous visit to Istanbul in 2016 I got five liras to the pound, this time I got 20.

For me, the highlight of this trip was the explosion of medical tourism. On the Turkish Airlines flight from Dublin, I spoke to two 30-somethings from Belfast who told me they couldn’t eat or drink on the flight because they had to undergo “a procedure” a few hours after arriving. They both had breast augmentation and the price “was a bargain” compared to UK clinics. Their stay was only a few days “if all goes well” and they had little time left to sample the delights of the historic city. They weren’t friends meeting for the first time at the airport, they ended up in an online support group set up by the Turkish clinic. They looked so much alike I thought they were sisters when my better-informed wife pointed out that their lips, eyebrows and cheekbones had all been “done” in a standard design that risked boring conforming to an idealized beauty. They identified two men in the back of the plane who were also receiving procedures but did not know what.

We arrived at Istanbul’s new airport (Istanbul Havalimani) on the Black Sea coast opened in 2019 and is now one of the largest and busiest in the world. It is impressive in every way and certainly compared to Istanbul’s old Atatürk Airport on the Aegean coast. Istanbul Havalimani plans to be a major travel hub and is already a medical hub.

In Sultanahmet, the historic part of the city, the level of medical tourism is blatant. Men arrive at cafes with messy neck bandages where hair follicles have been harvested and inserted into the skin at the hairline which is still tinted iodine brown with disinfectant. There are many men and women wearing neat bandages on their noses. These are the most obvious and hair transplants are the most popular procedure listed in advertisements published by city surgeons. This is followed by rhinoplasty (filling of the nose), then breast augmentation, dental implants, bariatric surgery (cutting of the stomach) and IVF (fertility). We met a Swedish couple at the Grand Bazaar looking for cheap Gucci luggage and spending a few hours before getting their noses done. The female was strikingly beautiful and I wondered why.

I have no doubt that the clinics in Istanbul are properly regulated, but I am concerned that some of these procedures require aftercare that cannot be provided during the short time patients are in the city. All surgeries carry risks and it is likely that some will end up being processed on their return by the NHS. Indeed, Mr Allister Brown, plastic surgery consultant at Ulster Hospital, warned of the dangers.

Linking my Istanbul sightings to work colleagues, I was given a long list of allegedly botched Istanbul-related operations, including a woman in her twenties in Belfast hospital with serious complications to the stomach. Dentists are also concerned with the procedures that produce ultra-shiny turkey teeth. They feel that Turkish clinics are far too aggressive in reducing good teeth, leaving only residual stumps that often fail after a short time.

We have to be realistic. Cosmetic procedures are becoming more and more common and are big business, so they aren’t stopping anytime soon. What we need to do is protect patients who decide to have surgery in regions where the standards may be more difficult to ensure. We must also ensure that these procedures do not become a major burden on our overburdened healthcare system. If I was waiting for a procedure with Mr. Brown, which is funny enough, and I’m waiting nine months with a red flag, then it seems unfair that his valuable time and considerable skill be spent on botched cosmetic procedures performed by his colleagues in Istanbul. Okay, Dupuyteren’s contracture is hardly life threatening, it’s painful at times and has a slight impact on my work, but my right hand looks like a grotesque claw, which makes me think maybe I’m just totally conceited and bloody complaining about The Wait. Maybe I shouldn’t be so mean and go private. I wonder if this can be sorted while I enjoy another trip to my beloved Istanbul?

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