A hair transplant operation in Turkey is not just a medical procedure. Almost every clinic in Istanbul offers a package deal: You get picked up from the airport and brought to your hotel by a private driver supplied by the clinic. Your hotel room will have already been booked by the clinic and you don’t need to worry about transportation on the day of the procedure—the clinic handles that, too.
And people come in droves because while a hair transplant costs up to $25,000 in the US and Europe, in Istanbul, it ranges from just $600 to $2,000.
In part that’s because competition between the city’s clinics is intense. There are now tons of them—“They are springing up like rabbits,” says Talip Tastemel, the general manager of Clinic Expert, one of the biggest hair transplant clinics in Turkey—and many are willing to go to extreme measures to bring down costs to draw in clients looking for a cheap deal. Tastemel says the competition has led clinics hire under-qualified people to perform operations in order to cut costs.
Tastemel admits that even at Clinic Expert, doctors do not perform the majority of operations—despite legal requirements that all hair transplant operations in Turkey be performed by doctors. “After years of work, these nurses and technicians require a minimum level of supervision. But the doctors generally intervene with the complicated cases and complications,” he says.
Most clinics completely disregard the rule. In the past five or six years, the race for clients has outweighed concerns about quality. Tayfun Oguzoglu, a doctor who runs an upscale facility called Advanced Hair Clinic, says it’s common for patients to meet a doctor for a consultation before an operation and be led to believe that the doctor will be performing the surgery—when in fact, it ends up being done by a nurse or technician.
A nurse performing a hair transplant at the Clinic Expert hair transplant clinic in Istanbul.
The clinics get away with it, says Oguzoglu, because inspectors from the Health Ministry are more than willing to take bribes in exchange for a warning that an official inspection is coming. “Someone pays the big money,” he says, and when the inspection happens, the clinic makes itself look like its operating fully above board. The Health Ministry did not respond to Quartz’s request for comment.
Cheap hair transplant surgery is one of the only things still bringing visitors to Turkey. In the wake of several terror attacks and a failed military coup, tourism in Turkey declined sharply in 2016. It hasn’t rebounded—except in one sector: hair transplant tourism.
Clinic proprietors say it’s because the majority of their clients hail from Middle Eastern countries—Bugra Ersin Murtezaoglu, the general manager of Natural Hair Turkey, estimates 90% of his clients come from the Middle East. They are, he says, less likely to be spooked about Turkey’s political upheaval than Europeans and North Americans. Indeed, Oguzoglu who markets primarily to Europe and the US, says he was badly affected by both the coup attempt in July and the attack on the popular Reina nightclub on New Year’s that left 39 dead.
There’s a side effect to these unique circumstances: a mini-economy has sprung up within the hair transplant industry for Syrian refugees, who are valuable because they speak Arabic.