Top Turkish dentist hits back at critics: ‘Brits have the world’s WORST teeth thanks to failing NHS dental care and thousands come to us in desperation
- Dr Gülay Akay says 60 per cent of patients in her hospital are desperate Britons
- Foreign scare stories allegedly driven by UK dentists who bill ‘exorbitant’ fees
At first, back in 2019, just a trickle of British patients came through the doors of our dental hospital in Turkey.
Most were desperate and in agony. Years of neglect had left them with dire tooth problems, from multiple cavities and infections to gum disease. But the most surprising thing was that almost each one had made the difficult – and, some might say, extreme – decision to fly 2,000 miles for treatment because they were struggling to be seen by an NHS dentist.
The cost of private care in the UK was too steep for them, so, put simply, they felt they had no other option.
But today, this dire situation has worsened considerably. That trickle has become a tidal wave. In my 15 years of being a dental surgeon in my native Turkey, I’ve never seen anything like it.
That initial group of 15 ‘health tourists’ who I saw at my Istanbul dental hospital in 2019 grew to more than 2,200 last year. This year those numbers will reach 5,500 – with patients from the UK now making up to 60 per cent of our clientele. And it shows no sign of slowing down.
At Dentakay we treat people from across Europe and beyond, but I’m afraid to say that Brits’ dental health is by far the worst.
At least 80 per cent of those we see have an underlying medical issue caused by poor dental care – from complex jaw problems to badly damaged teeth and gums.
The reason is clear: your NHS dentistry system is failing.
We’re seeing people who are in so much pain they’ve resorted to pulling out their own teeth with shoelaces or fixing their crowns with glue, such is the struggle to get an appointment with a dentist.
Some have spent 15 years unable to get the right care, while others can’t eat properly or have been unable to access NHS treatment after they lost teeth in car crashes or following chemotherapy.
It has been genuinely shocking to witness.
It’s not just me – colleagues across all seven of our dental hospitals in Turkey have reported the same stories.
Dr Cansin Celebi, a dental surgeon based in another Istanbul hospital, tells me the majority of her British patients have had problems finding a dentist.
‘Some of them have been waiting years,’ she explains. ‘One dental problem can quickly lead to another, so we see people in a very bad way. One young woman had been treated for breast cancer, and the chemotherapy had badly damaged several of her teeth.
‘But even after ringing every NHS dentist for miles around, she could not get seen.’
Despite the surge in the number of Britons travelling abroad for treatment, we know that some still have concerns about the safety of health tourism. Problems have largely emerged from the social media-driven trend for something so popular it’s even been dubbed ‘Turkey teeth’ – a cosmetic procedure offered by some uncertified clinics which involves shaving teeth down into pegs and applying a strip of gleaming-white crowns on top for the perfect smile.
British dentists – particularly private ones who charge exorbitant rates for the same work – have taken to the media to tell horrifying tales of patients returning home in pain and with terrible infections after botched procedures.
I don’t doubt this happens. There are good and bad clinics, and I have huge sympathy for anyone who ends up in a terrible state.
The Turkish Dental Association says that as many as 250,000 foreign people travel to Turkey for this cosmetic work every year – and not all procedures will succeed. The average complication rate is about three to five per cent, though much lower in Dentakay’s hospitals.
To be perfectly frank, however, the disturbing cases we have seen in our hospitals shows that British dentists are in no position to criticise the standards of our dentistry.
We are picking up the pieces for patients who have had terrible care in the UK, and when you look at the latest statistics on the state of NHS dentistry it’s hardly surprising.
The number of NHS dentists in England is at its lowest in a decade, sitting at about 23,500 – down 1,100 since before Covid. Experts say this is primarily driven by the fact the NHS contract doesn’t properly compensate dentists for work carried out, so many simply switch to private practices for more money.
A recent survey by the British Dental Association found that half the dentists polled had cut back on NHS work since the pandemic and 43 per cent said they planned to go fully private in the near future.
The effect is that about nine in ten NHS practices aren’t accepting new adult NHS patients, creating so-called ‘dental deserts’ that leave one in five without a dentist.
In July, a report from the parliamentary Health Select Committee concluded the state of NHS dentistry was ‘totally unacceptable in the 21st Century’ and had resulted in a ‘decline in oral health’. If what we are seeing in Turkey is anything to go by, that is absolutely true.
One young mother in our clinic had been trying to register with an NHS dentist for 12 years, despite being prepared to travel hundreds of miles. She had widespread tooth decay and the pain was worsening to the extent it was affecting her mental health and quality of life.
It sounds Dickensian, but she became so desperate she had to pull two teeth out using string – literally yanking them herself.
By the time we saw her she had several missing teeth which needed implants and crowns and we had to perform six root canals.
When you treat someone like that, you aren’t just giving them back their smile and their confidence, you are transforming their whole life.
She isn’t the only patient we’ve seen who has resorted to these DIY methods of tooth extraction.
Grant Lakey, who came to us last year, used his own shoelaces to pull out five teeth which had become dislodged by a work accident. He had tried and failed to get treatment on the NHS for a decade.
The 59-year-old construction worker from Bromley, Kent, says: ‘I lost my first tooth when I stood on a scaffolding plank and it hit me in the face.
‘Other teeth became loose, which made it difficult to eat, but I couldn’t get NHS treatment for love nor money.’
Emergency dental clinics would not remove the teeth because they ‘weren’t rotten’, he adds.
‘I was getting repeated infections, and was in a lot of pain and discomfort, but no one would take me on.
‘Eventually, although it sounds medieval, I pulled them out myself. But with all the gaps I looked like a drug addict. It was awful and I was so embarrassed.’
Mr Lakey was in an awful situation, but we’ve been able to give him the implants and treatment he needs for a fraction of what it would have cost in the UK.
Another British patient, Laura Joita, came to see us at our Antalya hospital after she was left in agony for six months with tooth infections and two cavities – one of which needed root canal surgery. The 36-year-old, who works as a maitre d’ in London, couldn’t get an appointment because of pandemic restrictions and was told to use clove oil – a natural anaesthetic – to numb her pain. It had little effect.
‘It was excruciating. One side of my face was swollen and it was affecting my daily life and my ability to work,’ Laura recalls.
‘I was taking painkillers every day but they weren’t helping. There was a long waiting list for the root canal work I needed.’
Laura got the treatment she desperately required, as well as whitening, for about £500. She says: ‘Even with flights it’s more affordable than in the UK. And they seem to actually care.’
It’s also common for British people to resort to using alcohol to cope with the pain. I’ve lost count of the number of people relying on vodka or whisky to feel more comfortable. That might numb the pain, but it also makes things worse by damaging the teeth and gums, not to mention the rest of the body. It’s very upsetting.
Some patients are in such despair they end up using glue or even putty to keep broken crowns or teeth in place. One case that particularly sticks in my mind was an elderly man who had several loose crowns that he had tried to fix in place with super glue. As you might expect, his mouth was a mess.
And I was horrified to see one young man who, despite losing a lot of his teeth in a bad crash, hadn’t been able to get any treatment in the UK. Expensive private clinics had quoted him figures of more than £40,000 for the work – we ended up treating him completely for a third of that price.
These savings are driving a lot of patients to Turkey. A porcelain crown that might cost up to £1,800 in the UK costs just £250 here. Laminate veneers are £275 each, and £1,600 at home.
This does mean, of course, that there are less reputable operators offering similarly cut-price dentistry. Some patients coming for Turkey teeth will end up with a set of crowns which are all joined together in a strip because it’s even cheaper.
They might look perfect, but you can’t floss them, and food can also get trapped as they don’t always fit properly, causing bad breath and infections.
And there have been some cases where dentists not operating to our standards have shaved the natural tooth back so far that they destroy the root, essentially killing the tooth.
What many tourists don’t realise, too, is that some of these strips of crowns offered by less responsible clinics are designed to last only ten years. Once they’re done, that’s that – you’ll never get your own teeth back, and the whole thing will need to be done again every decade at your expense.
What do we do that makes us so different from the cowboys?
We don’t offer strips of crowns, for a start. And we take our time, only performing work that is absolutely necessary.
Patients’ cases are discussed in detail by a team of seven dentists before they even fly over to sort out what they need.
We’ve already seen their dental X-rays carried out by our partners in the UK. Our initial consultations last at least an hour. And we don’t send patients home until we’re satisfied the treatment has been successful. If a patient needs to stay longer than anticipated for any reason, flights are changed and accommodation organised.
We also offer a warranty, in the rare case that corrective treatment might be necessary, and have an office in London for patients to contact which can arrange aftercare.
We have just been assessed by independent consultants as meeting the exacting standards required by the UK’s Care Quality Commission.
Of course, some people aren’t interested in such care – they just want a specific Instagram ‘look’ as quickly as possible. They’ll go to a clinic which will do what they want faster and at a lower cost.
I can’t stop that happening. But it is sad that so much of this is down to the crisis in NHS dentistry. Of course, there are many excellent NHS dentists doing their best. But the system clearly isn’t working.
It’s not for me to tell the UK how to solve this problem, although I will say that if you want a system where charges to patients are minimised, you have to invest in it. Dentists should be paid properly by the NHS for the work they carry out.
And the high prices charged by some private clinics in the UK simply aren’t justifiable.
We are proud of our track record. It’s just such a shame that the UK – with its highly respected NHS – cannot say the same.
- Dentakay has five dental hospitals in Istanbul, one in Antalya and one in Ankara. It is also opening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and has a consultation centre in London (dentakay.com).