Travel with a purpose
Despite the obvious pause caused by Covid-19, travel in general has begun to bounce back to near pre-pandemic levels and the thirst for it shows no sign of slowing down for some time yet. Nowhere is this more evident than the quest for travel with a purpose, this is to say travelling with a specific purpose in mind other than leisure.
Medical travel, and specifically fertility travel are two prime examples of how people are turning to travel with a purpose to address medical needs rather than seek solutions in their home country. The reasons for travel are numerous and include waiting list time, access to specific treatments, cost and success rates. One thing is certain, more people are travelling for medical reasons, and are prepared to travel long distances to access them.
So-called ‘fertility tourism’ is a term which developed shortly after the birth of the first IVF baby in Britain just over forty years ago. As this medical triumph was replicated in other countries, more treatment providers started to open up the doors not only to domestic, but international patients. Over four decades later, you will find at least half a dozen fertility clinics in any developed country offering a dedicated service to patients living outside its borders.
In the U.K., the birthplace of modern day IVF we have witnessed major shifts in the domestic fertility market. A number of medium and large groups have grown their own clinics and invested in others, so much so that, over 60% of all clinics regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) are now owned by such groups. Despite an increase in the number of large clinic groups in the U.K. there is still an apparent gap between demand and supply, particularly when it comes to specific types of treatment.
Those patients seeking treatments involving donor treatments are most likely to look abroad in the first instance. Research carried out by the International Fertility Company (IFC) in 2020 suggested that over half the people that travel from the U.K. do so to access egg, sperm or embryo donor treatments. The reasons for this are numerous but certainly supply is one of the major drivers for travel. Anecdotally across fertility forums and platforms, patients vent their frustrations about donor availability in the U.K. and the waiting lists they face; high costs and the fact that it is no longer possible for individuals to donate sperm, eggs or embryos anonymously in the UK.
It is not surprising therefore that the numbers travelling in search of donor treatment continues to rise. The 2020 research from IFC highlighted access to larger numbers of anonymous donors; cheaper and quicker treatments being key for those patients who travelled.
Donor International has been set up to help patients access competitively priced and quality driven donor treatment. Essentially matching availability with need, its online platform showcases donor treatment options in different countries. Founder and Chief Executive of Donor International Eddie Kuan explains,
“Our ‘One-Stop’ platform gives Individuals and Couples access to over 170 centres worldwide and thousands of donors. With affordability in mind all our Donor International Partner Clinics give preferential treatment pricing and free initial consultations if booked through Donor International”.
In 2005 the U.K. embraced a change in the law relating to egg, sperm and embryo donors. Any baby born as a result of such a donation from 2005 onwards would now, at the age of 18, be legally entitled to find out who their donor was. Whilst this change was welcomed by many, inevitably there are individuals and couples who are dependent upon donor intervention and who wish to keep donor information anonymous. U.K. patients seeking anonymous donors therefore now need to travel to countries in which this remains legally possibly like Spain or Greece.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on the numbers of U.K. patients seeking to travel for treatment in particular by creating an NHS backlog. According to the latest NHS figures over 7 million people were on the waiting list for treatment in England alone with over 400,000 waiting over a year. NHS waiting lists are forcing patients into the private sector in greater numbers than ever before. The Private Healthcare Information Network highlights the number self-paying patients accessing private acute care has gone up by more than a third compared with before the pandemic.
The level of NHS funding for fertility treatment varies considerably across the UK, ranging from 62% of cycles funded by NHS Scotland to less than 20% in some parts of England according to the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority. The level of funded treatments is decreasing across the U.K. with only a third of all cycles now being funded. The remainder, and a growing proportion of cycles are undertaken in the private sector.
The combination of a new generation of private sector patients and those seeking to escape long waiting lists, that is, in areas of the U.K. where funded fertility treatment still exists, means that it is likely that the numbers of those seeking treatment abroad will continue to rise. Andrew Coutts, a specialist in cross border reproduction has been working with patients who travel for fertility treatment for over ten years,
“Although we do not have a definitive source of data on outward bound health tourism, it appears it is an option for increasing numbers. One data set produced by the Office for National Statistics has estimated that just under 250,000 UK residents went abroad in 2019 just prior to the pandemic; an increase of 100% from the year before. We are now witnessing a bounce back in travel after the pause for Covid-19 and I can see no reason why this figure will continue to rise year on year. Unfortunately, at the present time we do not have specific figures for those travelling for fertility treatment but anecdotally, we know this figure is significant, and is continuing to grow”.
Donor International is seeking to offer those that are considering travel for donor treatment a transparent directory of options. As it grows it will provide the most comprehensive resource for patients and treatment providers wherever they reside.