Rida Azeem knew her dental trip to Turkey had gone wrong the minute she took her mask off.
“I had big gaps underneath my gums, and you could see all the metal bits (of the implants). It was done so badly it was unbelievable,” Azeem, an engineer from Manchester in the UK, says.
“Originally, they were going to do five implants,” she says. But when the treatment was about to start, the dentists told her they would “have to remove all your teeth”.
“They looked professional,” says the 42-year-old, who now has to wear veneers.
Attracted by the promise of the perfect smile at an unbeatable price, 150,000 to 250,000 foreign patients flock to Turkey every year, according to the Turkish Dental Association (TDB), making it one of the world’s most popular dental tourism destinations alongside Hungary, Thailand and Dubai in the UAE.
‘Best and cheapest in the world’
Tarik Ismen from the TDB insists that Turkish dentists are only responding to demand.
“Some people want to look like Hollywood stars and have a bright, fluorescent smile,” he says.
He explains that botched surgery rates of “3-5% is acceptable… and could happen anywhere”, adding that not one of his association’s 40,000 dentists had been struck off.
“Turkish dentists are the best and the cheapest in the world,” declares Türker Sandallı, who pioneered dental tourism in Turkey 20 years ago.
He boasts that “not one tooth has been extracted in 12 years” in his Istanbul clinic, where 99% of the clientele are foreigners.
“But, and I am sad to tell you this, 90% of Turkish clinics go for cheap dentistry,” Sandallı says, accusing illegal operators of damaging the industry’s image.
The head of an Istanbul clinic, who did not want to be named, said that some clinics in Turkey treat teeth that do not need treatment.
“They put veneers on teeth that only need bleaching or lightening, sometimes they even put full crowns,” he says.
The British Dental Association has sounded the alarm about the phenomenon, warning of the “considerable risks… of cut-price treatment” abroad, warning of many cases of infections and “ill-fitting crowns and implants that fell out”.
Patrick Solera, from the French dentists’ union, said he was horrified to see influencers going to Turkey “to have their teeth trimmed”.
“You do not put a crown on a tooth that’s a little yellow, and trimming a healthy tooth to put a crown amounts to mutilation. In France they lock you up for that.”
Dental tourism: No way to get your money back
For the victims, legal redress is scant and costly once they return home.
“When a patient returns from Turkey or elsewhere with work already done, dentists refuse to touch them because you become responsible,” says Solera.
Just to repair the damage, Rida Azeem and Alana Boone have been quoted treatment costing €30,000 – three to four times what they paid to have the work done in Turkey.
Through persistent efforts, the British engineer managed to get back €3,000 from the Istanbul clinic. This wasn’t enough to pay for the dentures she had to have made in Pakistan to recover “90%” of her smile.
The Turkish dentist did offer to treat her if she returned, “but I was too afraid”, Azeem says.
“If you want treatment, find your practitioner yourself, talk to them directly and don’t go without an online consultation,” says lawyer Burcu Holmgren from London Legal International.
She says she has helped more than a dozen patients who have had problems with Turkish dental care get redress.
“The process is very slow, it takes about two years,” Holmgren says, adding that she has won 96% of her cases.
The head of the Istanbul Chamber of Dentists, Berna Aytaç, says she still believes in medical tourism but is worried about the number of students wanting to get into the profession.
In 2010 Turkey had 35 dental faculties, now there are 104.
“We are creating future unemployed dentists,” says Aytaç. “And if they find work, some unfortunately won’t be that concerned with ethics.”