The rise of infertility treatment in the UK may be self limiting

One factor that can affect any aspect of medical travel and medical tourism is that the market sector can be a victim of its own success. Constantine Constantinides has highlighted this previously in his IMTJ article “Medical Tourism and the West’s Revenge”, arguing that in effect the success of medical travel is self limiting.

How can this success be self limiting?

Where overseas treatment becomes an attractive option for patients, domestic providers and governments may react to this trend by becoming more competitive (e.g. by reducing prices for local treatment) or by removing the causes and drivers for medical travel (e.g. by changing local regualtion of a treatment). Thus, the more patients travel abroad for treatment, the greater will be the reaction within the domestic market and a “balance of trade” will be reached.

An excellent example of this phenomenon is this week’s announcement by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) that it intends to conduct a consultation over changes to the rules governing egg and sperm donation in the UK. There has been a significant shortage of egg and sperm donors in the UK due to the restrictions on the payments that can be made to donors. The £250 maximum “compensation” payment for both men and women donors has meant that demand for donor eggs and sperm has far exceeded supply. Waiting lists can be as long as two to three years for those patients eligible for NHS treatment.

The removal of donor anonymity has also been a contributing factor to the reluctance of donors to come forward. According to the most recent HFEA statistics (2008), only 1,184 women donated eggs and there were only 396 new sperm donors in 2008. Around 2,000 babies a year are born in the UK using donated eggs, sperm or embryos. As a result, we have seen an increasing number of UK couples seeking infertility treatment abroad; it has been one of the fastest growing areas of medical tourism. (For the background see “New research paper provides insight into infertility tourism”). The response from the HFEA to the increasing number of infertile couples going abroad is therefore to consider how to reduce this …… by increasing the payments and incentives to egg and sperm donors, AND thus increasing the supply of eggs and sperm. Payments may increase to £1,000 plus.

It’s unlikely that the changes will have any immediate effect on the market sector. No decisions will be made until the end of the HFEA public consultation next year. The three-month public consultation will not start until January 2011 and the HFEA is expected to be subsumed into the UK’s Care Quality Commission as a result of the UK public expenditure cuts. But there’s a clear warning here for those involved in medical tourism businesses and the medical travel sector. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket….. Or more seriously, be aware that any segment of the medical tourism market may be limited by its own success when domestic providers and governments seek to reverse the trend.