Brit Rida Azeem knew her dental trip to Turkey had gone horribly wrong when she took off her mask.
“My husband said, ‘What did they do to you? Your face is all sunken.'”
“I had big gaps under my gums and you could see all the metal parts (of the implants). It was so badly done it was unbelievable,” the Manchester engineer told AFP.
“Originally they wanted to do five implants,” Azeem said. But when the treatment was about to begin, the dentists told her they had to “remove all the teeth.”
“They looked professional,” said the 42-year-old, who now wears false teeth.
Attracted by the promise of a perfect smile at an unbeatable price, 150,000 to 250,000 foreign patients flock to Turkey every year, according to the Turkish Dentists’ Association (TDB), making it one of the world’s top dental tourism destinations alongside Hungary, Thailand and Turkey makes dubai.
But the “Hollywood smile” sold by clinics in Istanbul, Izmir or Antalya often involves trimming – or even extracting – healthy teeth, sometimes even removing all teeth.
“Many dental clinics in Turkey treat teeth that do not require treatment,” the head of a clinic in Istanbul, who asked not to be named, told AFP.
“They put veneers on teeth that just need to be bleached or whitened, sometimes they even put on full crowns.”
– ‘Every day pain’ –
Azeem is far from the only foreign patient left disfigured or in chronic pain.
Alana Boone, a 23-year-old Belgian woman who traveled to Antalya in July 2021, was one of five foreign women spoken to by AFP who suffered from serious complications.
The 28 crowns she made seemed fine, but only on the surface. They were “placed too low. Now every day I have inflammation and pain… sometimes it’s very intense,” she said.
“The only solution would be to remove everything, but dentists don’t know what they’re going to find.”
Marie, a French nurse, felt she needed to work on her bottom teeth to boost her confidence after a breakup. “I wanted to look more attractive,” she said.
But a Turkish dentist persuaded her to put crowns on her tips too – 28 in all.
“I had very healthy teeth. I started regretting everything when they started filing my teeth,” she said.
“After about a month, the problems started: Teeth started moving, and food started getting stuck between them… My breath is so awful even mouthwash doesn’t help,” said the forty-something.
– “It’s mutilation” –
The British Dental Association has sounded the alarm about the phenomenon, warning of “considerable risks … cheap treatment” abroad, warns of many cases of infection and “poorly fitting crowns and implants falling out”.
Patrick Solera of the French Dentists’ Union said he was appalled to see influencers going to Turkey “to have their teeth cut”.
“You don’t put a crown on a slightly yellowed tooth, and pruning a healthy tooth to put a crown on is tantamount to mutilation. In France they lock you up for that.”
But TBD’s Tarik Ismen insisted that Turkish dentists were only responding to a need. “Some people want to look like Hollywood stars and have a bright, fluorescent smile. If Turkish dentists don’t do it for them, there are Albanian or Polish ones who will,” he told AFP.
He said botched surgery rates of “three to five percent are acceptable … and could happen anywhere,” adding that none of his association’s 40,000 dentists have been eliminated.
“Turkish dentists are the best and cheapest in the world,” said Turker Sandalli, who promoted dental tourism in Turkey 20 years ago.
He boasted that his clinic in Istanbul, where 99 percent of the clientele are foreigners, “hasn’t had a single tooth pulled for 12 years.”
“But – and I’m sorry to tell you this – 90 percent of Turkey’s clinics opt for cheap dentistry,” he said, accusing “2,000 to 3,000” illegal operators of blackmailing the industry.
Berna Aytac, head of the Istanbul Dental Association, accused medical tourism agencies of “impairing the quality of care”.
Almost all foreign customers AFP spoke to were traveling to Turkey on all-inclusives booked through agencies that provided their transportation, treatment and accommodation.
– Influencer Victims –
More than 450 medical tourism agencies are licensed by Turkey’s Health Ministry, but AFP discovered some are using misleading material to lure customers.
Among them is Sule Dental, which presents itself with its own “dental clinic”, although officially it only acts as an intermediary.
Sule Dental uses photos and bright confirmations from former customers with bright smiles on its Internet homepage. One woman called the staff “AWESOME!!!!” while another praised the “very caring” doctors.
But the images are stock photos from an image database. AFP found the same photos used to publicize a clinic in Antalya called Perla Dental, as well as a Tunisian medical agency.
On Instagram, where Sule Dental has 390,000 followers, are glowing videos of former patients, including two from Britons, who told AFP they had suffered complications.
One was left with “root canal damage. I started bleeding profusely while brushing my teeth,” he said.
The influencer – who asked not to be named and has traveled to Turkey as part of a partnership to spread the word about the clinic – has remained silent about his troubles to his tens of thousands of followers for fear of a lawsuit.
Neither Sule Dental nor Turkey’s Health Ministry responded to AFP requests for comment.
– “Too Scared” to Go Back –
For victims, legal avenues are sparse and costly once they return home.
“When a patient comes back from Turkey or elsewhere with work already done, dentists refuse to touch him because you become responsible,” said French dental leader Solera.
Just to repair the damage, Rida Azeem and Alana Boone were estimated to pay $30,000 in medical expenses, three to four times what they paid for their work in Turkey.
Through dogged efforts, the British engineer managed to recover $3,000 from the Istanbul clinic that disfigured her – not enough, even for the dentures she had in Pakistan to restore “90 percent” of her smile.
The Turkish dentist offered to treat her when she returned, “but I was too scared,” she said.
The clinic did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
“If you want treatment, find your doctor yourself, speak to them directly and don’t go without online advice,” said Turkish lawyer Burcu Holmgren of London Legal International.
She said she helped more than a dozen patients who had problems with Turkish dental care to get redress.
“The process is very slow – it takes about two years,” she said, adding that she won “96 percent” of her cases.
Most cases end in a financial settlement without a dentist being fired, she admitted.
The head of the Istanbul Dental Association said she still believes in medical tourism but is concerned about the number of students wanting to enter the profession.
In 2010 Turkey had 35 dental faculties – now there are 104.
“We’re creating future unemployed dentists,” Aytac said. “And when they find work, unfortunately some don’t care that much about ethics.”