One of the worst moments — and there were many from which to choose — in my journey through IVF was being handed a price list of the services, as if I was at a day spa. The clinic no doubt thought that the nicely formatted card and glossy brochures would put me at ease.
It was quite the opposite. Being handed a price list for services to conceive a child made me sick to my sluggish ovaries and blocked fallopian tubes. It underscored the fact that the IVF version of baby-making is just capitalism after all, as cold and hard as the stirrups on the clinic bed.
As confronting as it was, my husband Chris and I handed over our credit card without a moment’s hesitation. We were fortunate enough to be able to afford it.
But with each basic IVF cycle in the vicinity of $4000 — that’s after the Medicare rebate but before anything you might get back on private health insurance — not everyone gets the ‘‘luxury’’ of picking services from this price list.
With prices like these, it was only a matter of time before somebody identified a gap in the baby-making market and came up with a low-cost offering.
Virtus Health, the first in-vitro fertilisation company to list on the Australian Stock Exchange, has recently launched low-cost IVF clinics in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The Fertility Centre is to traditional IVF clinics what Aldi is to Coles.
"The key behind our significantly lower IVF treatment costs is our simplified and standard IVF treatment model,’’ says the website.
A ‘‘simplified and standard’’ IVF cycle at The Fertility Centre will set you back about $2000 per cycle.
Half-price babies might sound like wonderful news to the infertile, but it may come at an even greater cost. Scientific director at Monash IVF Dr Tiki Osianlis isn’t convinced that cuts can be made without curbing the quality of the procedure.
‘‘Everything we [Monash IVF] currently do within an IVF cycle is best practice. There is nothing to simplify. We currently have the best results in the fewest cycles. There are no bells and whistles to cut,’’ Dr Osianlis said.
Services at The Fertility Centre may be cheaper, but if you need more cycles to make a baby, or don’t get a baby at all, is it really value for money?
And it’s not just the direct costs of treatment that need to be factored in. It’s the cost of missing work for the continual consultations, blood tests and scans and procedures.
Beyond money, it’s the prolonged emotional cost of riding the IVF roller-coaster, putting your life on hold while you undergo treatment and lying to your nearest and dearest as to why you’re continually cancelling on them at the last minute.
Because the budget clinics are new, there’s no data on the success rates. But one of the ways The Fertility Centre saves money is by using fewer and lower doses of hormones. This means that patients will produce fewer eggs in each cycle.
Fewer eggs can mean fewer chances of making a baby because not all eggs collected end up as babies. For example, I produced six eggs in one IVF cycle. Three died during the fertilisation process, one became my daughter and the other two were popped in the freezer for later.
Fairfax Media health editor Julia Medew reports that another cost-saving measure, employed by the Queensland clinic, is replacing the general anaesthetic for egg retrieval with weaker painkillers such as Panadeine and nitrous oxide gas.
‘‘It’s just two quick stabs with a needle,’’ said David Molloy, clinical director of Queensland Fertility Group. ‘‘Some patients find it pretty rugged, but the vast majority of patients tolerate it extremely well. It’s one of life’s little compromises. Patients are prepared to put up with a little bit of discomfort in return for having access to a program they previously thought was unaffordable.’’
As an IVF veteran, the thought of undergoing an egg collection operation with little more than headache medication seems barbaric. IVF is a serious medical procedure. It’s not like choosing between a standard massage or the deluxe hot stone, essential oil, pressure point experience depending on your budget.
It’s worrying that even something as commonplace as a general anaesthetic becomes a luxury for rich women, while poorer women have to put up with ‘‘one of life’s little compromises’’.
The low-cost IVF procedure highlights the extent to which IVF is just another business, and in the case of The Fertility Centre in particular, it’s a public company whose primary responsibility is to make money for its shareholders.
Despite the emotion of trying to make a baby and the desperate baby hunger that can drive us, we need to remember that IVF is, unfortunately, a commercial transaction.
We need to be mindful of the marketing spin from both the top and the bottom ends of town and do our research to determine if ‘‘value for money’’ is indeed value for money.
Kasey Edwards is the author of four books: 30-Something and Over It; 30-Something and the Clock is Ticking; OMG! That’s Not My Husband; and OMG! That’s Not My Child.