Perspectives from the IMTJ Medical Travel Summit 2019


The IMTJ Medical Travel Summit, a three-day event, was attended by over 250 delegates from across the world. My primary aim was educational , as I am writing an Executive MBA thesis on Medical Travel for Cancer. I am delighted to say that the Summit was a well organised conference, with great content. There were plenty of opportunities to meet and network with the ‘who’s who’ of the medical travel sector and I made some good connections. 

Keith Pollard, Chairman of the Summit, kicked off the first day by outlining the growth potential of the medical travel sector. Various factors are restricting the growth, but two caught my attention: lack of marketing strategy and poor understanding of the target market. 

Irving Stackpole, of Stackpole & Associates, then put forward a fascinating hypothesis: when the medical problem is acute or serious then the destination country is less important, but when patients are seeking a solution for a chronic long-term issue or cosmetic surgery then the attractiveness of the destination country becomes a driving factor. Nevertheless, in his estimate, globally around 6 million people are expected to travel annually seeking medical treatments, with estimated growth projections from 10% to 30%.

Later that day, Elizabeth Ziemba of Medical Tourism Training, conducted an on-stage interview of a patient who had travelled from the UK to Turkey on a number of occasions for cosmetic surgery.  It was a quite a learning experience to see how the patient’s perspective and patient satisfaction plays a huge role.

Brand management and online marketing is often overlooked by hospitals. On the second day of the Summit, Helen Culshaw from Ascendancy Marketing offered some great tips on getting the best out of Google Ads and having a website that would actually make the patient journey a smooth experience.

The Summit

It is important to know how to deliver what the patients want.  I was quite impressed to learn that the Dubai Health Experience (DXH), described by Linda Abdulla from the Dubai Health Authority, not only showcases integrated medical and travel information but also offers a travel insurance that covers medical complications. As a medico-legal expert dealing with medical errors, I found this a great value addition for the medical traveller. 

Some great insights were also offered into the German hospital market, including a presentation from Mariam Ozod-Hamad from Sana International, describing how they are branding themselves as a “Made in Germany” experience. They are paying special attention to the process-driven patient journey and attracting the majority of their patients from Russia and Arab world, who are looking for high end treatments.  

Croatia has also certainly marketed itself as a destination of choice for dental and cosmetic treatments. Ognjen Bagatin and his team at the Bagatin Clinic impressed me with how his clinic group has promoted itself to international patients.  Bagatin Clinic also won International Cosmetic Surgery Clinic of the Year at IMTJ Medical Travel Awards, held on the evening of the second day of the Summit.

The market focus session on China, Russia and the GCC countries was quite interesting. Ksenia Shcherbino of  Anglo Medical spoke about the challenges and opportunities in the Russian market. Around 85% of Russian patients seek second opinions and up to 90%  will look to travel abroad for treatment for complex healthcare issues, such as cancer. While Germany and Israel are the most natural destinations for Russians, it struck me it would be interesting to see if India can take some market share for these cancer treatments. 

The most successful medical travel stories, in my opinion, are from Malaysia and South Korea. In both there have been sustained efforts, with government backing, in promoting as well as regulating the medical travel sector. Each country has collected an impressive amount of data, and I think tracking your failures or successes through the data is an important marketing strategy. I asked Sherene Azli, CEO of Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC), to describe their key marketing strategy tips. The answer was “find your niche market and don’t try to sell everything to everybody!”  

Dr. Claudia Mika, Founder and CEO of Temos International GmbH put forward a strong argument for investing in accreditation from an independent body.  The Temos certification system, for example, assesses hospitals, rehabilitation centres, reproductive care centres, and dental clinics worldwide, according to specific quality criteria for international patient management, developed together with leading travel health insurances and assistance companies. While I can see the appeal for the clinics or medical facilitators, I would argue that the big hospitals who already have JCI accreditation would perhaps fail to appreciate this as a value addition unless this is seen as a strategic marketing advantage.

The Summit ended with IMTJ Editor in Chief and Summit Chairman Keith Pollard conducting a debate in his indomitable and quintessential English (or rather Oxford Union style)! The house agreed that the medical facilitators may well be an endangered and rare species, but they are far from extinction. They still have a key place in the medical travel sector when it comes to patient satisfaction. 

Which three countries could do better in the medical travel sector? 

  1. United Kingdom. It was striking to see virtually no representation from UK private hospitals in the exhibitor’s hall, apart from the Mayo Clinic in partnership with Oxford University advanced health screening clinic. UK private healthcare has traditionally attracted medical travellers from the Middle East, but Keith Pollard argued in a recent interview that  “the private insurance market is stagnant and NHS belt tightening means less NHS work is being sent to the private sector. There has been a decline in the international patient market, particularly from the Gulf. If Brexit goes ahead, it will have a significant impact on the NHS and therefore on the private healthcare sector”. 

    In my opinion, the UK private hospitals need to perhaps look at the Malaysian model and consider offering a digital platform,  where patients from across the world find it easier to choose a hospital in London for medical travel. “London” itself  is a big brand that requires little or no marketing, but we need more concerted efforts to make London an attractive health tourism destination

  2. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).  Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2030 has clearly focused on the importance of the development of many sectors to diversify the Kingdom's income sources, encourage private sector investment and attract international investors in these sectors.

    Recently, it appears they have made the tourist visa process easier and faster.  My fellow MBA colleague Ms Hibah Abusulaiman argues that “Saudi tourist's visa will change the medical tourism in Saudi Arabia. The country has several well-established medical cities and hospitals across the country which are equipped with the latest medical technologies and globally experienced HCP that with no doubt will contribute in such a milestone step. In fact, Saudi Arabia throughout the history is offering all people who are visiting for Umrah and Hajj free healthcare services for all acute medical cases. Saudi Arabia has been a global medical destination and a land-mark since almost a couple of decades ago in conjoined twins separations (42 successful separations of conjoined twins from 19 countries).” 

    According to the Arabia news, the number of religious tourists is expected to rise from 17.5 million recorded last year to 25-30 million in 2025.  This could create a big opportunity to offer medical services. My friend and Chief Medical Officer at King Faisal Hospital and Research Centre Dr Hail Al-Abdely, MD says; “KSA has made tremendous investment on capacity building of healthcare over the past 40 years. This extended through all levels of care including advanced modalities of healthcare delivery. Until recently this was restricted to people residing within KSA and mostly through universal free, government sponsored, healthcare. Now opening care delivery for international patients is under serious discussions and likely to be passed. KSA is at a position to be a healthcare hub for the region and further. Growth in religious and regular tourism with easy access and affordable and high-quality care would make it an attractive destination. Being at a main tertiary care centre in KSA, I see opportunities on advanced care for cancer and end stage organs failure. We had already our internal discussions on such areas of care for travellers.”

  3. India. It was a heartening moment to see Apollo Hospitals winning two awards at the IMTJ Medical Travel Awards. One was the Lifetime Achievement Award for Apollo founder Dr Prathap C Reddy, and the other was the International Cancer Centre of the Year Award. Dr Reddy is a pioneer of private healthcare in India and towering personality in the Indian healthcare industry. Apollo Hospitals has done a remarkable job of promoting India as a medical travel hub, however in my opinion, Indian hospitals need to concentrate on brand management. Being cheap in healthcare is not always the best and Indian hospitals need to compete on quality of care as well as patient satisfaction. Indian doctors are some of the most skilled and experienced in the world;  hospitals have well known accreditations and the likes of Apollo Hospitals have advanced cancer care treatment like proton beam therapy. Mr Dinesh Madhavan, President Group Oncology & International Healthcare at Apollo tells me that in  the last 11 months of commissioning, they have performed more than 100 procedures using proton beam therapy. During our Indian module of the MBA, I visited Cytecare Hospital in Bangalore which offers “organ-specific” cancer treatments.  Within a short period of three years, CEO Suresh Ramu and his team have built a strong reputation. As a doctor, I would say  theirs is an excellent clinical strategy and perhaps an effective marketing strategy. And hence, I think as far as cancer treatments are concerned, India can become a hub for the Asian subcontinent if not for further afield.  
    In some Indian hospitals, there is a lot of reliance on international students doubling up as medical facilitators and translators. This can sometimes throw up all sorts of conflicts of interest and ethical challenges. My fellow MBA candidate Gabriela Jenicek, Director of Language services at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia would argue that the importance of language services in the care of international patients should not be underestimated. Ineffective communication between providers and patients leads to poor outcomes, increased risk for patient harm as well as increased cost for treatment. Providing excellent care without high-quality language services is not possible and it will reflect in the patient experience scores.  For the success of any clinical program that treats patients with linguistic and cultural needs, language access cannot be an afterthought.


To sum it up from the IMTJ Medical Travel Summit 2019, I believe you need a segment- and target-based marketing strategy to attract international patients, with an over-arching aim to offer a seamless journey.  Hospitals need to offer the best quality care supported by good language and cultural experience. 

Phillip Kotler, in his book on the healthcare marketing strategy strongly recommends that  “you do need to move away from a transaction view just to make a sale and adopt a customer relation -building and satisfaction view. “

I would say the new marketing mantra of the medical travel sector needs to be focused around offering a “Value Medical Travel” from the patient’s  perspective.

About the Author

Dr Sahir Shaikh is a medico-legal expert, international healthcare consultant, and mentor and advisory board member.  His is currently studying for an Executive MBA in International Healthcare, from Frankfurt School of Management, and has a particular interest in international medical travel -  marketing strategies. 


1. IMTJ ,2019 Summit presentations 

2. Delegate Interview

3. Strategic Marketing for Health Care Organizations: Building A Customer-Driven Health System by Philip Kotler, Joel I. Shalowitz, et al



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