Why Zagreb’s medical tourism “strategic plan” is a sobering lesson

When it comes to medical tourism strategy, few destinations get it right. The latest destination to jump straight into tactics without first thinking through their strategy is Zagreb, Croatia. What can we learn from their US$50k investment?

When it comes to medical tourism strategy, few destinations get it right. Some jump straight into tactics – investing in marketing and promotion to a plethora of potential markets, without thinking through their strategy. Some believe that once they’ve established a medical tourism cluster, attended exhibitions and shows across the globe and met lots of medical tourism agents and facilitators, the flow of patients to their destination will increase.

And some seek help from external consultancies and advisors whom they hope will get them on the right track.

The latest destination to adopt the latter approach is Zagreb, Croatia. Recent press coverage on Zagreb’s US$50,000 investment in consultancy on medical tourism strategy –  Burning Dollars in Zagreb: From Cancelled Conferences to Health Tourism Reports  – has not been positive. The Total Croatia News journalist, Paul Bradbury, summed it up like this:

“I read the report, all 71 pages of it, full of shiny charts and lots of data, much of it with little relevance to Zagreb. And having read it twice, I am still trying to find the strategy. Fifty thousand dollars.”

I think he’s right. Download a copy of the US$50,000 strategy and ask yourself:

  • Is this a deliverable strategy?
  • Does this document enhance Zagreb’s chances of success in the market?
  • Will it deliver a return on investment?

Bad advice leads to poor strategy

The consultancy who undertook the strategy work was GHR, the US-based offshoot of the Medical Tourism Association. That should raise some concerns, given the other destinations where they have been funded to undertake initial consultancy work. A journalist in the Philippines also highlights investment in “bad advice” in this month’s Philippine Star.

“You started back in about 2005 with bad advice and went downhill from there. We apparently hired a medical tourism association, a group of two lawyers claiming to be experts. Then DOH and DOT in 2009, started buying conference stands to sell excess capacity in hotel rooms and hospital beds without having a product at a medical tourism event. Then came other conference organizers in 2010, 2011, 2012, and then another attorney posing as a medical tourism consultant and nothing.”

Defining market niches

Medical tourism is not a market. It is a complex network of niche markets. The starting point for any strategy in medical tourism is to decide what you’re going to sell to whom. You aim to match your product and service strengths with specific market needs and wants. To do that requires some fairly in-depth analysis of the target markets and an honest assessment of your destination’s strengths and weaknesses relative to competing destinations.

A major shortcoming of the Zagreb document is its “sell loads of stuff to loads of people in loads of places” recommendations.

The service/market matrix as described in this US$50,000 strategy identifies the target markets as:

  • Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia, United Arab Emirates, and the United States

Well, that’s seven markets…. of which four are probably a good bet. How the UAE appears in this list, I have no idea. It’s oversupplied with hospitals and clinics and investing heavily in medical tourism initiatives to try and fill empty hospital beds. Even a basic understanding of the healthcare sector and outbound patient market in the UAE would rule it out. And the USA… really? Perhaps, because the work was done by a US consultancy, that wants Zagreb to spend money with them in the USA?

The services to be promoted are listed as:

  • Dentistry, cosmetic surgery, cosmetic/aesthetic services, ophthalmology, internal medicine, orthopaedics and executive health checks.

Well, that’s seven services embracing a plethora of healthcare activity. In which of these does Zagreb have real strengths?

49 market niches

Seven markets, seven very broad services. That’s 49 market niches. E.g. Let’s sell:

  • Executive health checks to the UAE
  • Ophthalmology to Austria
  • Orthopaedics to Russia
  • …and 46 others.

Of these 49, which should Zagreb pursue and which are the priorities?

Each of the 49 potential market niches would need to be assessed individually to establish local market demand and the match to what is on offer in Zagreb. Some may have great potential; some may have zero potential. Each is likely to require a very targeted approach.

What can we learn?

Here are my three takeaways from the Zagreb experience:

  1. If you’re seeking advice on medical tourism from external consultants, research the potential providers. Talk to previous clients. Don’t be distracted by smoke and mirrors.
  2. Remember that medical tourism is not a market. It’s a series of market niches. The more specific you can be in targeting your efforts, the more successful you will be. Don’t try to be “all things to all markets”.
  3. Be very honest about what your destination is good at. Put product before promotion. Make sure that you can deliver an outstanding patient experience that will exceed the expectations of customers in your targeted niches.
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Keith Pollard
As Editor in Chief of International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) and a Healthcare Consultant for LaingBuisson, Keith Pollard is one of Europe’s leading experts on private healthcare, medical tourism and cross border healthcare, providing consultancy and research services, and attending and contributing to major conferences across the world on the subject. He has been involved in private healthcare, medical travel and cross border healthcare since the 1990s. His career has embraced the management of private hospitals in the UK, research and feasibility studies for healthcare ventures, the marketing and business development aspects of healthcare and medical travel and publishing, research and consultancy on cross border healthcare.