Source: EL PAIS
If you have been to Istanbul in recent years, you may have noticed the groups of men passing by between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, or through Taksim Avenue, with shaven heads and headbands. Some tourists even ask if they belong to some sort of extremist Islamic sect. They do not; they are just bald men from all over the world who have come to this Turkish metropolis to undergo surgery and solve their alopecia problems.
Surgeon Abdullah Etöz marks the areas on his patient’s head where he will extract hair follicles and implant them in the area at the top.
Jordi, a young man from Barcelona, cannot hide how nervous he is. He is about to place himself in the hands of the surgeon at a hospital in Istanbul: “It’s my first time. Well, you really only do this once in your life.” His decision to go to Turkey has been given long thought. He does not know the country, but after looking at the different treatments and options available in Spain – he still has numerous comparison documents – he decided to make the journey. “He has done a fantastic job,” his father says, smiling proudly. 24 years of age, he has lost a substantial portion of his hair because of medication he had to take, but after eight hours on the operating table, during which the hair follicles were extracted one by one from the back of his neck to be “planted” on his crown and hairline, he looks satisfied. If everything goes according to plan, he will be able to show off a new head of hair within a few months.
El cirujano Abdullah Etöz señala las zonas de la cabeza de su paciente de las que se extraerán los folículos capilares que se implantarán en la parte superior.
Over the past few years, Turkey has been transformed into one of the world’s leaders in this discipline of cosmetic surgery: In 2016, some 65,000 foreign nationals went to its clinics for hair transplants. They mostly come from Arab countries, but more and more Europeans are choosing Turkey – particularly Italians and Spaniards. Turkish clinics have opened offices in Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities, or they are working with intermediary companies. The main reason Turkish hospitals are so appealing is the price. Operations cost between 2,000 and 3,000 euros each, including a few nights in a hotel – some packages extend the stay to encourage tourism in Istanbul – as well as transport and an interpreter. “The prices can be five or six times cheaper than in any city in Europe or the United States. This is because the operations do not require costly material, but mostly human capital, and with wages in Turkey being less, this reduces the price. Another relatively crucial factor is that there is a lot of competition and Turkish companies can offer the best prices,” assures Pau Vilanova, manager of CapilClinic, a company that takes patients to Istanbul: “Of course, the facilities and medical teams are very advanced and offer the same standard as anywhere in Europe.”
Plastic surgery and microsurgery have advanced enormously in the past few decades. According to doctor Abdullah Etöz from the Acibadem Bakirköy hospital, this has something to do with the numerous workplace accidents and injuries caused by war that hospitals have to treat each year: “In addition, we have a large number of young professionals who are well-trained and open to modern technologies.” Surgeon Zekerya Kul, who manages his own clinic, adds another reason why hair transplantation has developed so much that the techniques used in Turkey are more advanced than even in the USA: “This sector began to grow largely because of domestic demand, just like how Russia specialises in eye surgery, or Iran in rhinoplasty.”
It is undeniable that support is also being provided by the government, whose objective is to make Turkey “one of the three best destinations in the world for health tourism in 2023”, claims a source at the Ministry of Health. To that end, Turkish healthcare companies receive grants to promote themselves and open offices abroad. Close to 750,000 foreign nationals went to Turkey in 2016 for medical treatment, spending some five billion euros in the country. “Plastic surgery is just one of the many fields we work in,” says Gökhan Izlisu, manager for Europe at healthcare group Acibadem. “We have been welcoming overseas patients for 12 years, especially those coming for cancer and fertility treatment, neurosurgery and organ transplants, because we have agreements with the healthcare systems in various countries,” Izlisu explains.
However, the severe competition that exists between the clinics offering alopecia treatment in Turkey – there are more than 350 of them in Istanbul alone – has a dark side. There have been cases of clinics failing to maintain adequate standards of hygiene, and operations carried out by nurses or technicians without adequate training. “In Turkey, it is mandatory for a surgeon to be in charge of the procedure, and anybody not obeying this law could face jail time,” warns doctor Kul. Still, there are companies that rent rooms in large hospitals and use them to perform operations without the supervision of a doctor. “The patients think they are under the umbrella of the hospital, but that is not the case,” the surgeon resumes.
This issue is confirmed by a former employee by one of these “phantom” clinics, who recounts how, whenever the hospital had a visit from the health inspectors, the floor where the hair transplants were being carried out was completely shut down, to make it look empty. “There are businesses that significantly reduce the price, but they do not comply with the rules and regulations,” says Vilanova, “and that is why we recommend that patients do not just look at the price variable, but that they seek good advice before arranging an operation”.