NHS waiting times driving patients to seek weight-loss help in Turkey, says surgeon

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

Ahmed Ahmed, a consultant bariatric surgeon at Imperial College healthcare trust and the treasurer of the British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society, said there had been a notable increase in patients presenting with complications after undergoing surgery abroad.

“There’s certainly an increase in people going abroad for surgery and having bariatric surgery in Turkey,” he said. “Since Covid and the ever-increasing waiting lists on the NHS, people are being forced to go abroad to seek treatment. People should not have to go abroad.”

Concerns have been raised after European health officials advised EU citizens against travelling to Turkey for “weight-loss” Botox injections after 67 cases of botulism poisoning in the past three weeks linked to private clinics in Istanbul and İzmir.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control alert said some patients had been admitted to intensive care. None of the cases highlighted were in the UK, and the UK government watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), had not received any 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 the stomach muscles, with the aim of reducing appetite and aiding weight loss. The treatment is offered as a cheap, less invasive alternative to gastric surgery, but Ahmed says it is unlikely to be effective.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that gastric Botox injections work at all,” he said, adding that gastric Botox was not offered on the NHS for this reason. “Anybody who practises evidence-based medicine would not be doing this.”

Ahmed said he was aware of patients who had sought surgery abroad and subsequently needed NHS treatment because of serious complications.

“I work at St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, west London, and I’ve had people coming straight on the Heathrow Express to my A&E department after surgery in Turkey,” he said.

“I’ve seen people are being told they were having one operation but when we’ve investigated they’ve had another procedure. I’ve seen internal leaks or narrowing, joins not being done properly.

“I’m not saying that all Turkish bariatric surgery is bad, but I can tell you that I’ve seen a higher than expected rate of complications from people who have flown abroad to get it.”

According to the Foreign Office, at least 22 British citizens have died during medical tourism trips to Turkey, with several publicised cases involving bariatric surgery.

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

“These clinics are preying on the very vulnerable by offering a fast-track route. But the risks are exponentially higher than being under a GP on home soil,” she said. “There are huge risks with flying after a procedure like bariatric surgery but some clinics are suggesting you come out, have the surgery and fly home in a couple of days.”

Marc Pacifico, the president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), said: “With any drug or injectable product, it is crucial that the provenance, safety record and ingredients have been checked and regulated. The risks of being injected with an unknown product could cause serious medical harm and have both short- and long-term consequences.

“BAAPS would strongly urge anyone considering undergoing injectable treatment to ensure they see a reputable clinician who uses products that are both CE marked, MHRA approved and, if a prescribed medicine, available on the British National Formulary.”

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