Much has been written about patients from the United States who travel abroad for medical services of all kinds, including fertility treatment. In an interesting switch, Shady Grove Fertility in the Washington, DC area has become a destination for patients from the United Kingdom seeking affordable access to high quality fertility care.
Elly Russell, whose blog “Maybe Baby” is widely known among fertility-focused Internet users, is an example of how patients from around the world are seeking family-building opportunities in the United States.
35-year-old Elly and her husband, Chris, have supported each other through eight attempts at fertility treatment, and have spent about £35,000 (approximately $50,000 USD) in pursuit of their first baby. The aspect of traveling across the ocean to Shady Grove Fertility that grabbed her attention: the Shared Risk 100% Refund Program.
“I was over visiting a friend and I saw an advert for a clinic that was offering a money back deal,” said Russell. “I went home and thought about it for a bit. We were already doing IVF in the UK and after four attempts (two of which were successful but didn’t go full term) we decided to try Shady Grove Fertility as the Shared Risk program was very appealing.”
Shady Grove Fertility Center’s Shared Risk program provides up to six IVF cycles for a flat fee of $20,000 (or £14,000). When the couple takes a baby home from the hospital, Shady Grove Fertility has earned the fee. In the event the attempts are unsuccessful, 100% of the fee is refunded. Patients may withdraw from the program at any time during treatment. Since its inception over 15 years ago, over 3,000 couples have elected to go through our Shared Risk Program.
“The idea that I’ll get the money back I’ve paid them if it doesn’t work is important. I think if you’ve got a guarantee like the Shared Risk Program, then the clinic you’re using is going to work their hardest to get you pregnant,” Elly states. “When you’re doing this over and over and have had so many losses like we have… I needed a guarantee to feel like I wasn’t just throwing money at IVF.”
The Myth of Broader Access to Health Care
Contrary to the common American misunderstanding that Great Britain provides adequate health care coverage for fertility treatment, the truth is more complicated.
According to Shady Grove Fertility’s Annapolis physician Dr. Jeff McKeeby, “Some European countries have mandated IVF coverage, but each country or state or province within a country can have restrictions similar to the differences between states in the US. Some treatments are very limited or restricted in other countries; some may even be illegal. Many patients come to Shady Grove Fertility for egg donation and, especially, gestational carrier cycles for these reasons.” And others, like Elly, come for the IVF 100% guarantee program.
Indeed, Elly Russell has become a very visible advocate through the Internet and British media, representing the many women who truly need assisted reproductive technology to conceive, yet who fall through the cracks in the maze of rules that govern the distribution of medical services. In Elly’s case, even though she lost both fallopian tubes due to ectopic pregnancies in her early 30’s, she could only be eligible for one cycle of IVF paid for by UK’s National Health Service (NHS), but an ironic twist stood in the way of her even accessing that one cycle. At 32, she wasn’t old enough at the time.
“If I’d been 34, I would’ve qualified for one free go,” Elly explains. “My doctor wrote to try for an exemption because I had no tubes and was already in my 30’s. The NHS denied the appeal, so at that point I had to pay for IVF on my own. Now that I‘m old enough, I no longer qualify because I‘ve been able to pay [for fertility treatment cycles].” Her private healthcare, which is provided through Chris’ employer and for which the couple pays a premium, has long denied Elly infertility coverage because of her prior reproductive health issues.
Dr. McKeeby explains how the weaker U.S. dollar has made IVF here more cost-effective for many European patients, “especially when considering that IVF centers such as Shady Grove Fertility have higher pregnancy rates than the average European centers.”
The Logistics of International Baby-Making
Another factor in choosing the United States over, say, another European country for IVF was, for Elly and Chris, having friendships here. During the initial IVF and then two subsequent frozen embryo transfer cycles, Elly has stayed with understanding friends. She and Chris stay in touch via phone and webcam.
“I am a very strong woman and have a very loving husband who keeps me strong. We go through everything together and support each other. We both have our low moments, but we remain positive through every cycle. You have to or else you’ll be a basket case.”
The length of time that an IVF patient from abroad would need to stay in the U.S. for treatment can vary from several days such as with frozen transfer cycles, or three to four weeks for a complete IVF cycle. Most have access to some infertility services at home which can shorten their time away from home. For example, most IVF patients can get much of their pre-screening and baseline evaluation completed locally prior to traveling abroad. Others even have their early cycle monitoring done at home. With Internet and fax, following patients in remote locations is much easier today than ever before.
The Plus-Side of the Ocean
While patients who travel for cosmetic surgery and more life-saving treatments are nearly always departing from U.S. airports, the opposite may soon be true of patients seeking fertility care.
Says Dr. McKeeby, “IVF treatments in the U.S., including third-party reproduction, are ideal for patients from other countries as they usually have defined periods of treatment. Cost savings, approximate scheduling and limited time away from home make this a good option.”
For Elly and Chris Russell -- who are “lucky with respect to our having good eggs and great sperm,” feel the benefits of treatment at Shady Grove Fertility in the United States are outweighing what has previously been available to them.
“Having those six goes [through the Shared Risk Refund Program] took a huge, huge pressure off of my shoulders,” Elly remarks. “This is a tough road to travel and knowing you have a good run at it with money back if it doesn’t work out, takes away the pressure. It also doesn’t leave me feeling like I could end up with nothing at the end. I’m hoping for a baby – but if I don’t get that then I get $20,000 back!”
Never Quit Attitude
Elly’s determination to have a family will bring her back to Shady Grove Fertility soon to try another round of IVF. Finding out that her recent trip to the U.S. didn’t result in a pregnancy, Elly is unwavering in her quest for a baby.
“It was disappointing that it didn't work, but it won't stop me,” she said. “I still have four more cycles at Shady Grove, so I will be back in a few months to try again!”
And her advice for anyone who needs to travel internationally for IVF or egg donor treatment, “Go to the USA. Go to Shady Grove Fertility. The doctors and nurses are exceptional, the level of care is much higher than the UK, and they speak English as opposed to other international destinations."
“You add all of those things together with the better success rates, and 100% money back guarantee program, and that’s why I’m over here,” she says decisively.
Update: February 2010 - Their twins are here!
After this interview, Elly and Chris returned to Shady Grove in May 2009 and were delighted to discover in June that they were pregnant with twins.
Two little girls were born on February 2nd, both healthy and well.