Discount IVF can come at a cost

Successful story ... Janene and Jason Whiter used discount IVF to fall pregnant with their first child.
Successful story ... Janene and Jason Whiter used discount IVF to fall pregnant with their first child. 

A cheaper form of IVF without the "bells and whistles" of full-cost services, but with a lower chance of success, is being offered at outer Melbourne clinics.

Virtus Health has launched The Fertility Centre, which offers treatments that can save people thousands of dollars. It runs in its Melbourne IVF, IVF Australia and Queensland Fertility Group offices.

Doctors working for the group say they are offering a simpler form of IVF, one that cuts features from their full-cost service. In part, the process will involve less hormone stimulation to retrieve fewer eggs for fewer embryos.

Industry pioneer Associate Professor John McBain, who works for Melbourne IVF, explained that the services in Dandenong and Sunshine deny people a choice of doctor. They also offer less sophisticated technology, so patients can't freeze embryos for future attempts, and screen out more expensive services, such as the use of donated sperm and eggs and surrogacy.

"It's a good thing," Prof McBain said. "One of things that has always been important to me is access for everyone to reproductive medicine."

Lower prices

The clinics estimate that out-of-pocket costs per standard cycle will be about $1500 to $2000. Full cost services are usually more than $3500 per cycle, with increasing prices over the past decade.

The Queensland clinic is offering out-of-pocket costs as low as $800 per cycle, after replacing a general anaesthetic with weaker painkillers, such as Panadeine and nitrous oxide gas, to help women tolerate during egg retrieval. The day surgery involves a fine needle passing through the vaginal wall and into the ovary to draw fluid containing eggs.

"It's just two quick stabs with a needle," said Dr David Molloy, clinical director of Queensland Fertility Group. "Some patients find it pretty rugged, but the vast majority of patients tolerate it extremely well. 

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"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.

"We've created a new niche market of patients who can afford something for their medical care, but can't afford a fortune."

Dr Molloy, whose Brisbane clinic has treated about 600 people, estimated the process would carry a 25 per cent chance of pregnancy per standard IVF cycle, compared with the 35-50 per cent chance with standard care.

Sandra Dill, chief executive of infertility support group Access Australia, is cautious about the new system, saying that people should know their realistic chance of success before signing up. 

She also pointed out that lower success rates could mean that couples find themselves having more cycles, which will increase the overall cost. ''The jury is still out on this,'' she said.

'I still can't believe it happened'

While many Australians can pay tens of thousands of dollars to have a baby through IVF, Janene and Jason Whiter paid $2000 to experience the joy of pregnancy for the first time this year.

After 12 years of trying to conceive naturally, the Sunbury couple decided to try Dandenong's Fertility Centre in January to see if they could achieve a pregnancy for a cut-rate price.

While the couple had to drive nearly two hours back and forth between their home and the clinic, they were thrilled when Janene became pregnant after their first IVF cycle nearly four months ago.

"I'm so rapt," said Mrs Whiter, 35. "It's a dream come true. I still can't believe it has happened."

The couple had previously been to Melbourne IVF's full-cost clinic, where they were told they would be out of pocket about $5000-$6000 per cycle.

"We would definitely go back there," said Mrs Whiter, who is now 13 weeks pregnant.