Turkey invests heavily in the health sector and looks to improve its service quality to boost the potential of health tourism, and experts say it is paying off, as more foreigners prefer the country for organ transplants.
Some 589 foreign nationals benefited from liver and kidney transplants from live donors last year, a small number compared to the total of 4,171 transplants, but it indicates that Turkey is gradually becoming a favorite destination for those seeking transplants thanks to its improved health infrastructure and skilled surgeons.
Health Ministry figures show that the number of foreign transplant recipients rose compared to only 359 people in 2017, as 391 foreigners received kidney transplants, while 198 were operated on for liver transplants.
The high survival rate after transplants and quality health services are among factors attracting patients from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas to Turkey.
Professor Ayhan Dinçkan who runs an organ transplant center at İstinye University in Istanbul, said transplants for foreign patients are limited to kidney and liver transplants. "We only accept live donors, and foreigners are barred from transplants from cadavers. They also have to bring their own donors. They have to prove their kinship to the donors, and if they are not relatives, they are screened by a health committee on medical ethics," he said.
Dinçkan said the organ transplant branch of medicine contributes significantly to Turkey's health tourism and links it to the success of Turkish clinics.
Dr. Mehmet Kanpolat, who heads a health tourism association in Antalya, a Mediterranean city popular among foreign tourists, said Turkey took leaps in improving health infrastructure in the past decade. "Turkish citizens used to travel abroad for access to better health care. There is a reverse trend now. People seeking treatment come to Turkey. Organ transplant is an important part of these services. We are among the best countries in the world for an organ transplant in terms of health care personnel. Turkey is a reliable country in this field," he said. "We have to promote Turkey more abroad, especially in Muslim and Turkic countries. Health tourism offers a critical economic benefit for our country," he added.
Elmi Omar Abdullahi, a 31-year-old man from Djibouti, is among those preferring Turkey for a transplant. A kidney donation by his brother Mahamoud helped him to cling to life again. Abdullahi praised "the quality of the hospital" in Istanbul where he is staying after the surgery and said he is grateful to his doctors for a successful transplant. A 26-year-old Kyrgyz woman, Perizat Atambieva, said she came to Turkey upon the suggestion of her relatives who had had transplants here. Atambieva received a kidney from her sister Makhabat and said she is "happy" to be in Turkey, adding it won't be the last time she will be here.
Ironically, Turkey itself struggles to convince more people to donate their organs. Religious or cultural misconceptions prevent most from donating, while clerics and government agencies campaign to persuade potential donors. Over 25,000 people are on waiting lists for organ transplants. Unfortunately, about 10 percent of these patients pass away each year before having access to a matching organ. Although the number of organ donors increases every year, organ donation is still insufficient in Turkey. Only 25 percent of the families whose relatives are diseased agree to donate organs.