Malaysia Shines at CIHT Kvarner Health Tourism Conference in Crikvenica, Croatia

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November 8, 2018 – How Malaysia became the world’s best medical tourism destination, lessons in branding Croatian health tourism, and much more in an outstanding first day of the Kvarner Health Cluster CIHT conference in Crikvenica.

I had known in the back of my mind somewhere that the Kvarner health cluster was doing an amazing job at promoting health tourism on the northern coast of Croatia, but it was only today that I fully appreciated quite how well they were doing. An email exchange with leading global medical travel branding expert Ilan Geva recently led me to attending his specialised workshop on how to brand Croatia as a medical tourism destination in Zagreb earlier this week, and he filled me with enough enthusiasm and curiosity that I found myself on the road at 6am this morning – destination Crikvenica for the Kvarner health cluster’s 6th Crikvenica International Health Tourism Conference at Hotel Omorika overlooking the Adriatic Sea. The conference, also supported by local regional and national bodies and tourist boards, included representation from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Tourism and Croatian National Tourist Board.  


I have attended a number of conferences in recent months in Croatia, and there were so many aspects of CIHT that really caught the eye, once one had devoured all the superbly presented information on the event website, including welcome video messages from four key international speakers. There are 18 international speakers in all, experts in their field back in their native countries, and each with some expertise to share to help the Kvarner health cluster and medical tourism in Croatia learn and grow. One of my favourite details – simultaneous translate available in both English and Croatian (speakers spoke in different languages – see photo above) – although I didn’t use the service, the speed with which the panelists answered questions indicated what a high-quality job the interpreters were doing. 


The high-quality nature of the international expertise was perhaps best illustrated after the introductions, as the Kvarner Health Cluster made a presentation to its six ambassadors in recognition of their work. 

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Keith Pollard, Editor in Chief of International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ), Claudia Mika, founder and CEO of Temos International in Germany, Lutz Lungwitz, President of the German Medical Wellness Association, Daniel Coulton Shaw, co-founder of Global Clinic Ranking and Smile Clinic Slovakia, Ognjen Bagatin, CEO of Bagatin Clinic in Zagreb, and Ilan Geva. Geva was put to the back of the list for the presentations, as he was given an additional gift – a Luka Modric football shirt, which he had jokingly requested previously. A nice touch. 


It was particularly pleasing seeing young Bagatin get recognised for his efforts. There is no more avid – or effective – promoter of medical tourism in Croatia today, and his tireless travelling of the globe and local lobbying to move the story forward has placed his as the key person in developing the Croatian medical tourism story. 

With such a star-studded lineup, I was expecting some great information and presentations, but I was not quite prepared for what followed. Malaysia has been named as the best in medical tourism travel for several years in a row, and Sherene Azli, CEO of the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council was on her second visit to Croatia to explain how they did it. It was perhaps the most impressive presentation I have heard in my time in Croatia – of how to make an industry go from nothing to the world’s best in just a few short years. And I was not the only one who was absolutely stunned at the Malaysian approach and cohesion of all the major stakeholders; I overheard one of Croatia’s most successful clinics (I will not mention which) approach Sherene after the presentation, gushing with praise at the achievement, and lamenting the fact that such togetherness could be achieved elsewhere but not in Croatia.   

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Sherene kindly gave TCN an interview in the November Crikvenica sunshine, which I will publish in full in the coming days. It is quite a story, but I leave you for the moment with two things – the slide above listing all the major stakeholders who are all working as one, with Sherene coordinating all. About 90% of her job is managing the stakeholders, but 100% unity of the relevant institutions from marketing to arrival at the airport. A dedicated medical tourism waiting lounge is the first contact, which includes a transfer to the clinic. And the second teaser for now – take a tour of the Malaysian medical tourism experience in the official video below.  

And then perhaps the nicest moment of the morning session of the first day of this Kvarner health conference – a thank you to Croatia from Sherene not only for some thoughtful hospitality she had never encountered in 60 other countries she has visited, but hospitality which showed her how Malaysia could improve its service and hospitality thanks to her experience in Croatia. 

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I am probably the only Muslim in the room, she said, as she showed us a slide of two tiny details that made her feel truly welcome and that had never happened anywhere else. On the left, prayer mat, qibla and Koran which she found in her room, on the right Halal breakfast options. 

“I have only come across this halal option once before on my travels,” she said. “At the Zagreb Hilton last year.”

Well done Croatia. Those little details make a big difference.  

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Sherene was not the only fascinating speaker. The first morning session consisted of the following:

Is Kvarner health a tourism destination following the EU scenarios for health tourism development? Milena Persic, Full Professor at the Faculty of Tourism and Hospitality Management in Croatia.

Developing a medical travel strategy for a hospital or clinic. Keith Pollard of IMTJ. Keith, pictured above right, is a fellow Brit and also kindly gave an interview on the potential of Croatian medical tourism, one which I will also publish shortly. 

How to use TRUST in building the brand of your country, hospital, and people. Ilan Geva from the United States.  

Understanding Chinese perceptions towards Croatian medical tourism: a Fishbein model based on competitive analysis. Christine A. Lai, Professor at the State University of New York Buffalo State, USA. 

University Eye Hospital Svjetlost – from a single practitioner office to an international chain of eye care centers. Ivan Gabric from Eye Hosptial Svjetlost in Croatia.

A global patient stream turning online – the key ingredients to grow your patient base. Martina Viduka, Clinic Relationship Manager of Qunomedical, Germany. 

France Surgery – the key to success. Carine Briat-Hilaire, CEO and Co-Founder of France SURGERY, France.

Development of international cooperation in the Lublin Medicine Cluster in the field of scientific research and innovation in medicine, health, and education. Dariusz Matosiuk, Vice-Rector for science at the Medical University of Lublin, Poland. 

Quite an international field, with some truly fascinating topics, even for a non-medical person such as myself. 


(Ilan Geva at the Bagatin Clinic Croatian branding workshop in Zagreb earlier this week)

“Tell us a little about the branding of Croatian medical tourism from an industry perspective, and how can it be improved,” I asked the first panel from the audience. 

“Croatia doesn’t have a medical tourism brand. Period. I told you I am direct, but that is the truth. It has GREAT potential. It has some brilliant businesses such as Bagatin, which are doing incredible things, but private businesses cannot brand a country. The politicians need to provide the legislative framework for medical tourism to operate effectively. Then they need to set a budget. Then they need to get the hell out of the way and let the professionals deliver.”

It was a theme echoed by Svjetlost’s Ivan Grabic, whose frustration with the lack of national branding and promotion was not hard to detect. I asked him what he would do with a blank paper and pen and a mandate to deliver medical tourism in Croatia. He was extremely candid – and smart. Bring the clinics together to agree what they can offer. Then go to the government and involve the official stakeholders, for only the State can create a country brand, not a private company. Then agree a budget, which is where the fun begins. Gabric said that for every euro spent on marketing his eye clinic, he knows he will get 15-20 euro of business. Creating a Croatian medical tourism brand will not only take time to be successful (several years for France Surgery and the Malaysian Healthcare Travel Council), and so it will be seen as a shot in the dark with no immediate results. And that’s where things break down with official cooperation and funding. 

So the current state of the Croatian medical tourism industry, which has the potential to bring in BILLIONS to Croatia is this (from this Englishman’s perspective):

1. The biggest brand for health care in Croatia does not mention Croatia – it is Kvarner health.

2. The biggest advocate of Croatian medical tourism is one private clinic in Zagreb (and soon in Split) – Bagatin. 

3. Some of the best eye surgery (and probably the best for quality and price) in Europe is to be found in Zagreb and 6 other locations in the former Yugoslavia – Svjetlost.

4. There is a hospital in Zabok which is the exclusive partner of the world’s best hospital, Mayo Clinic, on a new healthcare initiative – the OneOme RightMed pharmacogenetic test – which can save hundreds of thousands of lives a year and save hundreds of billions of dollars. 

5. ALL the international medical tourism experts agree on the potential of health tourism in Croatia. And ALL the experts say the next step is for all the stakeholders to work together to make that happen.

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Here is Sherene’s slide on how Malaysia did it again – a reminder of how Malaysia did it. 

In the front row at today’s Kvarner Health cluster conference were senior representatives of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Tourism and the Croatian National Tourist Board – all key players. 

Can Croatia do a Malaysia? Over to you, Croatia.

As for me, now I REALLY want to go and visit Malaysia… Learn more about the Malaysia Healthcare Medical Council here.


To follow the latest news regarding the Kvarner health cluster and medical tourism in Croatia in general, follow the TCN medical tourism tag.

For more on Kvarner health and the Crikvenica International Health Tourism Conference, click here.


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