Clinics accused of stopping cheap IVF

Financial drain ... David and Mary Morton, with daughter Lulu, spent $35,000 on treatment. Photo: Craig Sillitoe
Financial drain ... David and Mary Morton, with daughter Lulu, spent $35,000 on treatment. Photo: Craig Sillitoe 

Owners of private IVF clinics are putting profits ahead of progeny by not offering cheaper treatments that would give more Australian women access to reproductive therapy, one of the world's leading fertility experts has claimed.

Alan Trounson, who delivered Australia's first test tube baby, said cheaper IVF was available to women overseas, including a method being tested in Africa for less than $300 a cycle before labour costs.

This low-cost method would incur extra expenses because of Australia's high labour costs but it could still be provided at a fraction of the price charged by private clinics, he said.

Medicare covers about 80 per cent of standard treatment fees, but out-of-pocket costs can range from $1000 to $3000 per cycle.

Professor Trounson said the low-tech method, which he piloted, was as effective as existing treatment and should be made available to all women - particularly those in developing countries and on low incomes.

More than 85,000 babies have been born through IVF since the technology was introduced in 1980.

But the founder of the Low Cost IVF Foundation said widespread use would be scuppered by those with commercial interests.

''This should be about freedom of choice but everywhere you go there's entrenchment,'' Professor Trounson said from San Francisco, where he is president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

''We've got under-resourced populations that can't access IVF, and the ethics committees say, 'Well, they shouldn't get a lesser treatment', but that's not a reasoned argument.

''Clinicians who work in this area make an awful lot of money and they have an interest for keeping it that way.''


More than 85,000 babies have been born through IVF since the technology was introduced in 1980.

Professor Trounson's low-tech procedure strips treatment back to its early days, with basic equipment and oral drugs that are cheaper and have fewer side effects than hormone injections used in conventional treatment, meaning fewer blood tests and ultrasounds are required.

The drugs stimulate the body to produce one or two eggs a cycle, with a 12 per cent pregnancy rate, compared to 10 to 12 eggs per cycle and a 30 to 35 per cent success rate with conventional IVF.

Doctors are divided on its efficacy, with critics saying it is unethical to offer a ''sub-standard'' treatment.

But supporters argue the low-cost method is less gruelling on the body, allowing patients to start another cycle within a month.

The method has been used in pilot form in developing countries including Sudan, Namibia and South Africa.

Some countries, including Japan, are offering women a low-cost option. Women in Britain can use publicly funded IVF through the National Health Service. In Australia, a few public hospitals offer cheaper IVF but waiting lists are long.

Geoff Driscoll, founder of IVF Australia, who left the organisation in 2002, said prices would remain high here as there was no competition between the private equity companies that owned the major clinics.

Professor Driscoll, director of reproductive medicine at the University of NSW and is on the board of the Low Cost IVF Foundation, said pharmaceutical companies were pushing the most expensive drugs. ''It gets back to the the philosophy of offering it [IVF] to the masses. Not everyone needs caviar. Many people can get by with rice.''

Gab Kovacs, international medical director with private clinic Monash IVF, argued Australian treatment was relatively affordable.

''It's not up to the IVF units to look after people who can't afford it; it's up to the government.''

Mary Morton, who spent $35,000 trying for a second child through IVF, supports subsidies for low-income earners ''because there will be a lot of low-income earners who are desperate to have kids who simply wouldn't have access to it because of the financial implications''.

In May last year, Mrs Morton, 42, and her husband, David, decided that after 13 gruelling IVF cycles, they could no longer afford the emotional and financial costs.

''We were out of pocket $2000 to $2500 for each cycle after you got your Medicare rebate and it started to mount up. We were dipping into savings, putting off holidays, not spending money on anything else,'' Mrs Morton said.