Croatian Medical Tourism: Great Potential, Collaborate or Die Says Ilan Geva

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November 14, 2018 – Another busy week for the emerging Croatian medical tourism industry. Branding guru Ilan Geva gives his thoughts after his latest visit to Croatia.  

It has been quite a week for the Croatian medical tourism industry. Keith Pollard, Editor in Chief of the International Medical Travel Journal, in an interview with TCN, talked about the Croatian potential, as well as assessing that the country could take 25% of the Hungarian dental market ‘if Croatia got its act together’; Sherene Azli, CEO of the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council, which runs the best medical tourism in the world in Malaysia, was in town to explain how Malaysia does it; and global branding guru Ilan Geva was in Croatia for a week, both as a speaker at CIHT 2018, having already performed a special workshop for industry professionals on branding Croatian health tourism in Zagreb. TCN caught up with Ilan after a busy week. 

1. You have just spent a week in Croatia, your latest visit since your first 10 years ago, and you held a specialized branding workshop with industry leaders, as well as performing as a keynote speaker at the 6th Crikvenica International Health Tourism conference organized by the Kvarner health cluster. How was your week, and what did you learn?

Every visit to Croatia is a good one for me. I simply like to come here, and get involved in knowing the healthcare providers, visit the hospitals and clinics, and mingle with the movers and shakers of the industry. I always see another angle in my visits, sometimes I focus on one single client, and sometimes I have the time to spend on my own and observe. This last week was indeed intense, since 4 out of 6 days on the ground I was presenting to audiences and following up with conversations.

It is clear to me that the Croatian medical tourism industry is now on a crucial crossroads. There is lots of work to be done. I learned that not everyone agrees on what to do and how to do it. And I came to a very simple conclusion, Croatians must build a national brand for the emerging medical tourism industry.

They must decide which government office supports the effort (only one!) and they must have a sense of urgency, there is no time to waste, the competitors are not waiting.

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2. You first came to Croatia back in 2008 to help a dentist in Rovinj. Tell us about that, and how the Croatian medical tourism story has progressed since then?

Back in 2008 the entire concept of medical tourism was in its infancy, as far as organized business category. Many providers felt that it is enough to just have a nice clinic and people will show up. There was absolutely no data, information, or anyone to learn from. The wonderful doctor in Rovinj was indeed a very competent doctor, and has presented new treatments in stem cell therapy, but he was a bit naïve. He believed that if he will give me a budget of $400 a month, I would be able to send him 200 patients a year from the U.S.Mathematically this is so improbable, that I saw no point in continuing the conversation. He basically offered me $24 per patient delivered!

And I am not even a facilitator, I am a brand builder and a marketing professional. The situation now is a bit different, but one of the most common sentences I hear in Croatia (as well as in other Eastern European countries) is the sentence: “We have no budget”.  That has to change immediately. No one gains anything with no investment. I heard that there is actually money being spent already, the question is who spends it, on what, is it transparent, and does it deliver a clear benefit to all Croatian medical tourism practitioners. Some people complained that the Zagreb Tourist Board has commissioned an American association to do a research, or feasibility study well over a year ago paid a six-figure amount (in U.S. Dollars) and yet no one has seen anything. That doesn’t contribute to the effort of building a consensus and collaboration in this industry.

On the other hand, the overall situation progressed a lot because these days there are extremely successful hospitals and clinics in Croatia, and the awareness is starting to build up, mostly by word of mouth.

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3. One of the key messages of your workshop was the need for all the stakeholders to come together, in a way that Malaysia has managed so well. Give us your vision of the stakeholders involved in getting the momentum behind the promotion of Croatia as a medical tourism destination.

The main lesson I learned from my travels and visits to medical tourism destinations and hospital inspections: Collaborate or die. Malaysia was no different from Croatia, they had to face the decision of being serious about the business, or just being a bunch of hospitals competing with each other. A bunch of hospitals competing with each other doesn’t help any country in creating a solid brand for its medical tourism industry.

Thailand, The Philippines, Israel, Greece and others have some few excellent hospitals. But in fights, inaction, political battles and “lack of budget” kill the opportunity to become a global brand in medical tourism.

Malaysia overcame the obstacle of politics, budget allocation, and legal implementation and made sure that all stakeholders know exactly what they are supposed to do within the medical tourism activity. Clear, transparent and efficient. Croatia is still miles away from that situation. Building a national brand is impossible under these circumstances, because there is no brand…only a bunch of providers spread all over the country.

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(Ognjen Bagatin of Bagatin Clinic, one of four Croatian clinics Ilan Geva singles out for Croatian medical tourism)

4. You travel the medical tourism globe, and have done for many years. Many Croatians will be surprised to hear that its medical tourism industry has such potential. Paint a picture of that potential, who are the key players in it, and where does Croatian medical tourism stand now, and where could it be in 10 years?

I will name only four businesses that are in the “Premier League” of medical tourism in Croatia: St. Catherine Specialty Hospital, Poliklinika Bagatin, Terme Selce and Svjetlost Clinics. They are each specialists in a separate area, and they are all extremely successful at what they do. They are also aware of the power of brand building, marketing excellence and delivering superb customer satisfaction. There are many other great clinics spread around the country, primarily in tourist destinations, such as Istria, Dubrovnik, Split etc. but they do not have the mass needed to build a global clientele.

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(Ilan Geva with Jadranka Primorac from St Catherine Specialty Hospital)

5. One of the things I learned this week is that the brand of the Kvarner health cluster seems to be stronger than that of Croatia in the industry. What are your thoughts on that?

What I love about the Kvarner Health Cluster is the fact that they are all about initiative. They are a good example of an organization that is trying to do the best for all its constituencies, and lift them all to a higher level. I personally don’t know if the Kvarner brand is more prominent than any other brand in medical tourism, but I also know that Croatia has no national brand in medical tourism…Simple. Croatia has a very strong brand and brand awareness in sports, but not in any medical institution, medical university, research facility or breakthrough innovation. Some of the brands I mentioned above have parts of this reputation, but not the country as a unique entity.

If you ask today anybody in any European location “What is Croatia know for”, I am willing to bet that no one will say “Excellent medical treatments”.

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6. Which markets do you think the Croatian medical tourism industry should target, and why?

Draw a circle around Zagreb, which represents up to 5 hours flight, and that circle may include the potential market for Croatia’s medical tourism market. Anything else will be a surprise for me.

7. As a frequent visitor to Croatia with an interest in health tourism, give us a paragraph on the potential healthcare and tourism experience which awaits patients.

This is a very broad question. But I will try to answer it via some examples. First, Croatia does have a brand in the tourism industry. The visitors to Croatia know that they can expect a beautiful clean and pristine country, with amazing sights, fantastic food, and very nice people. That is hospitality, and Croatians are known to be wonderful hosts. But even in this category, there are already voices that warn people not to show up in Dubrovnik at the height of the season, because the place is too small to contain all the visitors, and the level of service is deteriorating…Some of the great generosity and professionalism Croatians display in tourism is also evident in medical treatments. But the country does not have certain standards that will welcome patients in every location across the country. The customer experience might vary, and that is a danger when going forward.

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(Ilan Geva was among the nominated ambassadors by the Kvarner Health Cluster in Crikvenica at CIHT 2018)

8. You were given a special recognition in Crikvenica at CIHT 2018, as one of the conference ambassadors, and you were given an extra gift at the end – a Luka Modric shirt. Tell us about that and the hospitality you received in Crikvenica, where you were clearly very at home. 

The truth is that I was booked at another conference in Korea at the same time the CIHT conference took place. Suddenly, that conference was cancelled, and I was joking with Vladimir that I will come only if he will give me a Luka Modric official team shirt…Little did I know that he would take it seriously. I am actually glad he did! I was betting with all my friends in Chicago that Croatia will make it all the way to the finals, and they all laughed at me…they simply don’t know the grit of the Croatian people. If Croatians will demonstrate the same team spirit and determination in Medical Tourism, as they did in the World Cup, nothing will stop them!

My last visit to Crikvenica was the fourth one, and I enjoyed all of them, even in the winter. I know from personal experience that the people are extremely generous, professional and very welcoming. I also know from personal experience that as medical professionals they are good, very good.

Now what we have to do is make them famous around the world, and position them as the right people in the right place.

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(The Luka Modric shirt…)

To learn more about Ilan Geva, check out his official website.

To follow the latest from the Croatian medical tourism story, click here.


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