NHS wait times are driving patients to seek weight loss help in Turkey, says surgeon

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Desperate patients are seeking risky weight-loss treatments in Turkey because of unacceptable NHS wait times, a surgeon has said.

Ahmed Ahmed, a consultant bariatric surgeon at Imperial College Healthcare Trust and treasurer of the British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society, said there has been a notable increase in patients with complications following surgery abroad.

Related: ‘It’s not medical tourism, it’s desperation’: More and more Brits are seeking treatment abroad

“There is certainly an increase in people going abroad for surgeries and undergoing bariatric surgery in Turkey,” he said. “Since Covid and the ever-expanding NHS waiting lists, people have been forced to go abroad to seek treatment. People shouldn’t have to go abroad.”

Concerns have been raised after European health officials advised EU citizens not to travel to Turkey to receive Botox injections for “weight loss” after 67 cases of botulism poisoning linked to private clinics in Istanbul over the past three weeks and Izmir had performed.

The alert from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said some patients had been admitted to intensive care. None of the highlighted cases originated in the UK, and the UK government’s regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), had received no reports of botulism linked to weight-loss treatments.

Gastric botulinum toxin injections, commonly known as gastric botox injections, are advertised as a way to relax stomach muscles with the goal of reducing appetite and aiding in weight loss. The treatment is being offered as a cheap, less invasive alternative to stomach surgery, but Ahmed says it’s unlikely to be effective.

“There is absolutely no evidence that gastrointestinal botox injections work at all,” he said, adding that it was for this reason that gastrointestinal botox was not offered by the NHS. “Anyone who practices evidence-based medicine would not do this.”

Ahmed said he knows patients who have had surgery abroad and subsequently required NHS treatment for serious complications.

“I work at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, west London, and I’ve had people come straight to my emergency room on the Heathrow Express after an operation in Turkey,” he said.

“I’ve seen people being told they had surgery, but when we investigated they had a different procedure. I saw internal leaks or restrictions, connections were not properly made.

“I’m not saying all bariatric surgeries in Turkey are bad, but I can tell you that I’ve seen a higher than expected complication rate in people who have flown abroad for it.”

At least 22 British citizens have died during medical tourism trips to Turkey, according to the Foreign Office, with several cases of bariatric surgery becoming known.

Dawn Knight, a patient safety campaigner and trustee of the Joint Council for Cosmetic Practitioners, said some clinics in the UK are marketing aggressively, offering treatments ranging from hair restoration to dental surgery to gastric sleeves and liposuction.

“These clinics prey on the very vulnerable by offering a fast route. But the risks are exponentially higher than having a GP on home soil,” she said. “There are major risks in flying after a procedure like bariatric surgery, but some clinics suggest you come in, have the surgery, and fly home in a few days.”

Marc Pacifico, President of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), said: “With any drug or injectable product, it is crucial that the origin, safety record and ingredients have been verified and regulated. The risks of an injection with an unfamiliar product can cause serious medical harm and have both short- and long-term consequences.

“BAAPS strongly encourages everyone to undergo injectable treatment to ensure they are seeing a reputable clinician using products that are both CE marked and MHRA approved and, if it is a prescribed drug, on available from the British National Formulary.”


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