4 Reasons the Diaspora Should Take a Closer Look at Croatian Health Tourism Potential

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May 6, 2018 – The Croatian diaspora sends over 2 billion euro a year back to the homeland in remittances, providing a lifeline to many livelihoods in Croatia. Apart from that annual holiday on the beach, one area where diapora money can bring real value for diaspora spenders is in Croatia’s nascent health tourism sector. A closer look.  

Emigration is a tragic constant in Croatian history. Political persecution, economic necessity and other reasons have ensured that wave after wave of generations of Croats have left their homeland over the centuries. There are an estimated 3 million people in the Croatian diaspora, compared to about 4.2 million in Croatia today (check out where and when they emigrated in this TCN article from two years ago), and the difference between those numbers is getting smaller, with some 300,000 Croats having emigrated in the last seven years

As happens with other countries, leaving in search of a better economic future has brought increased wealth and opportunity to those seeking a new life abroad. Family bonds with those left behind remain strong, and remittances from the diaspora have been an essential part of many people’s livelihoods over the years, particularly during the recent Homeland War. Last year alone, more than 2 billion euro was sent by the diaspora back to Croatia in the form of remittances

With such economic disparity, it is easy perhaps to see the relationship between the diaspora and the mother country as a one-way affair of the richer half helping out the poorer. Croatia has its fabulous tourism and spectacular Adriatic coast which not only provides outstanding holidays and a beautiful connection to the homeland for visiting diaspora on holiday each year, but look a little deeper and Croatia has plenty of additional quality to offer visiting members of the diaspora, things which can not only enhance their lives, but also save them a lot of cash in the process. 

I have written before about Croatia’s health tourism sector, one of the biggest surprises of my travels around Croatia last year. I knew little about it apart from a growing business in dental tourism, particularly with dental tourism. Having used Croatian dentists myself over the last 15 years, I was aware of the quality of work available, as well as the friendly pricing, compared to the UK, but I had little understanding of how well-developed health tourism is in Croatia, or how the very best clinics in Croatia are on a par with the very best in the world, in a number of medical specialist areas.  My visits to the clinics of Bagatin, Svjetlost and St. Catherine’s Specialty Hospital were a real eye-opener last summer, the catalyst for the article Why Zagreb is due to become the next big medical tourism destination

Greater promotion of the range of outstanding health services to the diaspora will hopefully bring more interest, resulting in a win-win for both sides. Additional tourism dollars coming into the Croatian economy, with satisfied diaspora clients returning home from Croatia with much more than just wonderful holiday memories. Here are five areas where Croatian health tourism excels in Croatia, and where increased diaspora interest can be mutually beneficial. 

1. Dental Tourism

I have seen many promotional videos about Croatian tourism since we started Total Hvar back in 2011. Read a lot of articles, sponsored or unsponsored. But I don’t think I have ever come across a finer and more heartfelt promotion of a sector of Croatian tourism that I read on a private blog recently about an American citizen with chronic teeth which were so bad that it had affected his whole personality. Given his insurance plan, treatment was going to be prohibitively expensive and – even if the money could be found – take about two years of stressful surgery. The author of the blog, a concerned friend, decided to research international options to see if there was a cheaper and quicker option. Internet research led to an enquiry to a company in Berlin, which led to the start of intensive communication with Bagatin Clinic in Zagreb. Carl, the patient, was not an experienced traveller, but after some persuasion, he rocked up in Zagreb last December, where he was able to enjoy the magic of Advent in Zagreb as an additional treat while undergoing the necessary surgery. Quite apart from the excellent surgeon and warm atmosphere of Bagatin Clinic, there were two other huge benefits to his decision to come to Zagreb. 


(Carl – a mouth and a man transformed)

The first was price. The savings, even after taking into consideration all the travel costs, were a staggering US$90,000. And while the whole works would have taken up to 2 years back in the States, everything was completed in just 10 days in Zagreb. Carl returned home to the States a new man. You can read his friend’s blog here – I really do encourage you to take the time.  

Not everyone’s teeth are in such condition that a saving of US$90,000 is possible on a trans-Atlantic trip, but if the dental bills are looking too daunting back home, then Croatia is very much an option. With the speed of work completion in the case of Carl, for example, a little forward planning can really combine the homeland holiday with some excellent money-saving dental care. 

2. Eye Surgery

One of the big surprises in my research last summer was the high quality of Croatian eye surgery, principally due to the leading clinic in the region, Svjetlost based in Zagreb. Founded by Professor Nikola Gabric, PhD, in a one-bedroom apartment back in 1998, Svjetlost is now housed in an impressive 8-storey building in central Zagreb, with plans to build a similar block next door. Gabric himself has conducted more than 40,000 cataract surgeries since those early days, a symbol of the wealth of experience among Svjetlost surgeons. The Svjetlsot team now comprises some 25 doctors, including Dr. Maja Bohac, who was recognised in the US as Surgeon of the Month by the International Society of Refractive Surgery. Bohac has performed more than 15,000 laser surgeries, and is a regional pioneer in using new laser technologies, including femtosecond lasers and the laser removal of presbyopia. 


(Dr. Maja Bohac from Svjetlost)

One example where Svjetlost offers both improved quality and significant savings, for example, is in the field of cataract surgery. Mono-focal cataract surgery costs about 2500 euro in the Netherlands, for example, but just 1200 at Svjetlost. But Svjetlost also offers multi-lens focal treatment, a much better option for the patient (and taken up by about 30% of patients) at around 1800 euro, a significant saving over the Dutch mono-focal surgery. 

3. Dermatology

In addition to eyes and teeth, Croatia – and particularly Zagreb – is becoming recognised as an international centre of excellence for dermatology clinics. And if that sentence surprises you, look no further than the 2018 Global Clinic Ratings for the best English-speaking dermatology clinics in all Europe. A staggering three Zagreb clinics make it into the top six, with Bagatin Clinic – the same clinic which transformed Carl’s life and teeth, including that US$90,000 saving – ranked number one in all Europe. the only clinic in Europe to achieve the GSR International Accredited status. Bagatin was joined in the top six by Medical Skin Centre – Dr. Hilton and Partner, as well as Poliklinika Poliderma. Bagatin Clinic is building on this international recognition and will be opening a new clinic in Split next year, offering services in dentistry, dermatology and cosmetology. Having been shortlisted by the International Medical Travel Journal in three categories (International Dental Clinic of the Year, International Cosmetic Surgery of the Year, and Excellence in Customer Service), Bagatin is perhaps the best example of how the Croatian health tourism story is spreading its message of excellence. 

4. St. Catherine’s Specialty Hospital

The star of the Croatian healthcare scene, and a true global player in terms of medical excellence is St. Catherine’s Specialty Hospital, which is introduced by the  International Medical Travel Journal as follows:

“A European centre of excellence and member of ‘The Leading Hospitals of the World’, St Catherine Specialty Hospital in Zabok, Croatia is an internationally recognised hospital specialising in orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine, spinal health, medical imaging, neurology, gastroenterology, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and anaesthesiology and pain management. In addition to a full range of services in Zabok, St Catherine provides physical rehabilitation and seven specialist clinics at its polyclinic in Zagreb, as well as orthopaedic consultations at a satellite clinic in Split.”

The clinic of choice for a host of international sports stars, St. Catherine’s is the brainchild of Prof. Dragan Primorac, M.D.,PhD and wife Jadranka Primorac, M.Sc who opened the facility in 2011. Primorac is a university professor at 3 European and 2 US universities, paediatrician, geneticist and forensic science expert, who serves as Global Ambassador of The Penn State University and the Chair of International Affairs Committee of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He is also a former minister for science, education and sports in Croatia.

In addition to its medical patient services, St. Catherine’s also operates an R&D department, which is already producing results, the most recent being the discovery of a possible early diagnostic tool for rheumatoid arthritis. Learn more about the services on offer from this European Centre of Excellence on the official St. Catherine’s website

Croatia has a health tourism product of which it can be immensely proud, and one which can be of great benefit to its diaspora. The international market is not confined to the diaspora, and perhaps it would be fitting to end the article with some more reflections from America, in the form of the musings of one more satisfied dental client, whose sole reason to make her first visit to Croatia, staying in quality four-star accommodation for 10 days, was to get her teeth fixed. The revenue-generating potential of Croatia’s medical tourism industry is enormous.

We arrived back in Atlanta Monday night and it was a very smooth and uneventful trip. No jet lag got a good night’s sleep and both Randi and I were up and out the door early Tuesday morning.
First of all, THANK YOU for ALL you did to assist Randi and I in our trip to Croatia to have the dental work done at the Clinic. You played a most significant role in making our trip a very memorable one. I am used to having to do all my own arrangements when traveling internationally, so you spoiled me by being so efficient and helpful with all the details. I was able to relax and enjoy the experience. That is saying a lot when I was in the dentist chair 6 of the 10 days we were in Croatia. Relaxation and dental work do not normally go in the same sentence.
Here are my thoughts on our experience:
Where do I begin to share with you our perspectives on our wonderful experience with the Poliklinika Bagatin? 
Let me start by expressing my deep respect and appreciation to Dr. Mirna Munitić who performed the dental work. I had been experiencing consistent progressive deterioration of my teeth, over a period of years, caused by a previous medical condition. The estimates for the treatment to be performed in the United States were outrageously expensive and not affordable. Medical Insurance in the US was of no assistance in my particular case. Through a mutual business associate Mr. Wendell Strickland, the President of Strongside Solutions, I was introduced to the Poliklinika Bagatin, which provided a viable cost-effective solution for my degenerative dental situation. Over a period of several months of email and Skype conversations with Dr. Munitić her proficiency in English, precise diagnosis and clear explanation of the treatment made it easy for us to make the decision to travel to Zagreb from Atlanta for treatment.
I would like to affirm that Dr Munitić embodies some of the finest attributes to describe a person. She is…
·       a Consummate Professional. – She always explained each procedure she was going to do, in detail, making sure I was in agreement each step of the way. Her demeanor was always most gracious and very hospitable.
·       a Passionate Craftsman. – She absolutely loves Dentistry, which is obvious by the smile on her face, and her attention to detail, which is clearly a hallmark of her work.
·       a Remarkable Perfectionist. – It was clear from the first minute that I sat in the dentist chair that Dr. Munitić wanted the teeth to be perfect in alignment, color, shape, etc.“ She was so thorough to ask me questions about what I wanted my teeth to look like. Many of the questions she asked I had never considered. She focused on providing a custom design to look best with my facial contours and complexion. Since I do a lot of public speaking she was conscientious to make sure that my diction was clear and precise. In my words, she  “Tuned” my teeth to make sure I could speak properly and enunciate words correctly by having me count numbers and speak the alphabet. She focused on the alignment and pressure of the bite of my teeth which she got within ½ of a percentage point of perfect. Pretty remarkable! I now have better teeth than I have ever had in my life!
·       Exceptionally Personable. – She is very caring and constantly checking on the patient to be sure that you are comfortable. Her demeanor is most pleasant as demonstrated by how she “hums” along with the music on the radio while she is working, including commenting on which of the songs were on her favorites list.
In summary let me say that having Dr. Munitić provide the restorative dentistry that I desperately needed “gave me back my smile” both literally because I can openly smile without hesitation, and figuratively, because the experience was so top notch!
Poliklinika Bagatin under the dynamic and passionate leadership of Mr. Ognjen Bagatin is a company with state-of-art facilities, equipment, and procedures along with a leading-edge professional staff. From reception to treatment to payment, ALL of the staff we interacted with related to us with personable professionalism.  As a student of business, culture and customer service I was most impressed with the Clinic. It is an exemplar for other businesses to observe and emulate. Having the opportunity to speak with Mr. Bagatin and hear his vision, philosophy and objectives for the Clinic it is obvious he is a life-long learner and committed excellence with constant improvement in the services the clinic provides. He is a trend setter in identifying and applying “best practices” which is evident in the Bagatin Academy, which is provided to his staff with monthly professional development training.  
The Clinic has thought through all the issues related to traveling to another country and city for treatment. They provided us exceptional personal one-stop-shop travel assistance. Tea Hitner was exceptional at providing multiple options for our travel, sightseeing, shopping and recommendations for restaurants along with any other need we would have for our stay in Croatia. During our stay Tea kept in regular communication with us to make sure all of our itinerary was working as planned and adjusted any arrangements for us throughout our stay. She served us with exceptional and timely efficiency and personalized attention to detail, which made this trip one of the easiest trip I have ever made in over 30 years of extensive international travel.
For those who may not be familiar with Zagreb or Croatia and may be hesitant to travel there to have a procedure performed, please be assured that Croatia is a warm and friendly country to travelers. The countryside is beautiful with its mountains, it’s dense forests, extensive farmlands and fantastic coastal regions. The food is outstanding and the ease of navigating the cities’ sites, restaurants and shops by speaking English for daily interactions is exceptionally easy.
Zagreb has a brand-new world-class airport that is only 15 minutes from the clinic and hotels. Walking and biking are perfect options especially if you like visiting the Café’s which are abundant anywhere you go in the city providing great options to partake of the excellent coffee which is served in Zagreb. If you need to move quickly around the city it is covered by trains, which are extremely economical, taxis or Uber, which we used extensively and is half the cost of a taxi. For those who are not excited about exploring the city, the Hilton Double Tree hotel is located in the same building as the Clinic and has an excellent staff, very comfortable rooms, a great Gym and outstanding food. It has all the amenities you would need during the stay for your treatment.
In conclusion, let me say that I wholeheartedly endorse the Poliklinika Bagatin and Dr Munitić. There was not a moment of concern or regret in making the decision to travel to Zagreb on holiday (“take a vacation” would be the US expression) to have the dental work performed.
Tea, thank you for the kind hospitality gifts you provided as a sampling of Zagreb. That was over the top and a most gracious gift on your part. Our son Zach was overjoyed and overwhelmed to receive the shirts of Croatian football and basketball players. The Jerseys put a “BIG” smile on his face, but certainly not as big as the smile I now will have for the rest of my life.
So, words do not seem to be adequate to express our deep appreciation to you, Ognjen, Mirna, and Maja and all the clinic staff for the coordination, hospitality, dental work, and exceptional experience we had during our 10-day trip to Croatia, but THANK YOU for everything!
Please let me know anytime I can be of assistance to you personally or to the Clinic.


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