Experts issue warning over dangerous weight loss surgery amid surge in popularity of medical tourism

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Wednesday 22nd March 2023

Experts have issued a warning over the safety of weight loss surgery amid a surge in the popularity of medical tourism. The number of people travelling overseas to undergo procedures like gastric band surgery has increased dramatically in recent years. Reasons for the growing popularity of medical tourism include social media advertising, low prices, discounts and deals and NHS waiting lists.

A BBC investigation revealed that seven British people have died as a result of undergoing weight loss surgery in Turkey and many others have experienced severe complications after returning home. Weight loss procedures, including gastric band and gastric sleeve operations, are available in the UK but there is a long waiting list for treatment on the NHS. There are also strict criteria in place to limit access to surgery for those who have a genuine need for invasive treatment. Weight loss surgery should never be perceived as a quick fix and it is only available for patients who have a very high BMI and those who have tried other weight loss techniques to no avail.

The BBC interviewed several people who had been to other countries for treatment, including a lady from Belfast who decided to go to Turkey after seeing an advert on social media. She watched before and after videos on platforms like TikTok and was lured in by the promise of rapid results and unbeatable prices. She flew to Turkey and had treatment in October 2021. After a short period, she started to experience crippling pains but was told by doctors at the Turkish clinic that it was nothing to worry about.

Days after leaving Turkey and returning home, still in agony, the lady was rushed to hospital and was quickly diagnosed with sepsis and pneumonia. She spent the best part of a year going into and out of hospital and contracted sepsis six times within 12 months. In the end, NHS doctors had no choice but to remove the whole of her stomach. She said that the procedure had been life-changing for all the wrong reasons. She is tired all the time and she can’t do her job as a support worker.

Speaking about her experience in Turkey, the lady, who didn’t want to give her real name, said that it was nothing like the images or videos she had watched on social media and warned others to tread cautiously. BBC researchers have been investigating the growing trend of going abroad for weight loss surgery for several months. During the investigation, they spoke to patients, as well as healthcare professionals based in the UK. Doctors have witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of people requiring treatment after undergoing surgery abroad, with many suffering from severe and potentially life-threatening complications.

Dr Sean Woodcock, a consultant at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said that patients come in around once a week with complications linked to travelling to Turkey for medical treatment. Dr Ahmed Ahmed, an experienced surgeon and member of council at the British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society, said that he had encountered patients who had undergone completely different procedures at overseas clinics to the ones they thought they had paid for. Dr Ahmed also raised concerns about eligibility checks and said that some clinics are acting unethically and recklessly.

There have been examples of patients who have been advised to put on weight by eating more to reach a BMI that makes them a suitable candidate for surgery. Dr Ahmed criticised this practice, stating that it was shocking and totally unheard of in the UK. He stressed that patients who have a healthy BMI should never be considered for any kind of weight loss procedure. Of the 27 Turkish clinics the BBC contacted, six were willing to offer surgery to people with a BMI of 24.5. A healthy BMI is classed as 20-25.

BBC teams learned that seven Brits have died in Turkey after undergoing weight loss surgery. Joe Thornley was just 25 when he passed away in Turkey. His parents only found out about the treatment when police officers turned up at their home, handing them a contact number for a clinic. When Joe’s father called, the doctor said that he had a heart attack due to low blood pressure. A post-mortem carried out in the UK revealed that Joe had died of internal bleeding. His family tried to contact the clinic repeatedly and doctors refused to answer calls or reply to emails. Some clinics are offering patients the option to arrange treatment via WhatsApp in a matter of minutes. Costs in Turkey can be as low as £2,000, which is significantly cheaper than in the UK where private fees are around £10,000.