At least seven killed from weight loss surgery abroad, investigation reveals

·3 min read
Those who ended up with terrible complications had no way of returning to their surgeon - iStockphoto/Getty
Those who ended up with terrible complications had no way of returning to their surgeon - iStockphoto/Getty

Seven people have died following botched weight loss surgery abroad, an investigation has revealed.

Other patients who travelled to Turkey for gastric sleeve operations, during which 70 per cent of the stomach is removed, have suffered serious health issues.

The BBC has identified seven Britons who died after having weight loss surgery in Turkey since 2019.

The operation is available on the NHS, but long waiting lists are leaving some patients looking for other options abroad.

British doctors have warned they are treating an increasing number of patients who have returned from Turkey with serious complications following surgery, piling extra pressure on the NHS.

Advice from the Foreign Office for travellers states 22 British nationals have died in Turkey since January 2019 following medical tourism visits, including weight loss surgery.

The guidance adds it is “unwise to rely upon private companies that have a financial interest in arranging your medical treatment abroad”.

In December, The Scottish Sun revealed emails from health officials warning about the increase in patients needing urgent treatment from cut-price surgery abroad.

Hilal Bahia, a consultant plastic surgeon, told the newspaper: “We have a number of patients returning from Eastern Europe and Turkey having undergone cosmetic surgery.

“Some had terrible complications such as infections, with no way or means of returning to their surgeon to sort them out.”

Dr Sean Woodcock, a consultant at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, told the BBC a “very unwell” patient arrives once a week at Newcastle Airport from Turkey and is transferred straight to hospital.

The BBC Three investigation, Weight Loss Surgery: Getting Thin Abroad which airs on March 21, also revealed some Turkish clinics are reportedly accepting patients for the surgery who are not medically eligible.

In the UK, a patient’s body mass index (BMI) must be 40 or over to be accepted for the surgery, but six clinics approached by the BBC were happy to accept someone with a BMI of 24.5.

Encouragement to gain weight

In some cases, clinics encourage patients to put on weight to be accepted.

Dr Ahmed Ahmed, a member of council at the British Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Society, said the practices were “reckless” and “unethical”.

He added that the failure to provide timely weight loss surgery on the NHS is costing the health service to both treat the complications caused by obesity, and the after-care following failed surgery abroad.

"If you have to wait so long for a treatment to make you healthy, who's going to do that? If you can afford it, you're going to find other ways,” Dr Ahmed said.

The number of weight loss surgeries performed in England has fallen by a third since 2019 from 6,818, to just 4,409 in 2022.

One of the seven Britons who died following surgery was Joe Thornley, 25, who travelled to Istanbul for gastric sleeve surgery.

Doctors at the clinic told his family he suffered a cardiac arrest, but a post-mortem examination in the UK later discovered he actually died of internal bleeding at the site of his surgery.

Another patient, who did not give her real name, spent a year in and out of hospital after contracting sepsis following weight loss surgery in Turkey.

She told the BBC she had watched “before and after” weight loss videos on social media prior to the surgery, but the treatment and care she received were “nothing like” the promotional material she saw online.