The Fertility Race
The Fertility Industry

Competing for Customers

"IF YOU NEED IVF, why would you go anywhere else for treatment?" asks an ad for Pacific Fertility Centers. PFC is a California chain, but the ad ran in a Houston newspaper when the clinic's medical director, Dr. Geoffrey Sher, visited Houston to speak to prospective patients.

Two hundred people of many different races, young and middle-aged, filled a meeting room in an upscale Houston hotel to hear Sher speak. Each couple got an information packet and a videotape showing happy parents with babies conceived through Pacific Fertility.
An advertisement for Pacific Fertility Center.

Sher spoke excitedly in his clipped, South African accent about new techniques for helping infertile couples - and about the success of his program. Of the 40,000 babies born through IVF in the US in the past two decades, Sher said, nearly 10 percent were conceived at Pacific Fertility. Sher told the group about his clinic's high pregnancy rates. He offered each couple a free half-hour phone consultation.

Many infertility specialists in Houston were unhappy about Sher's appearance. One stood up at the seminar and questioned his methods. Some frowned on his visit as a marketing raid into their turf.

Sher excites a lot of controversy. He's outspoken and opinionated, and he advertises unabashedly on the radio and in newspapers. "I am first a doctor, and then an entrepreneur," Sher says. "If I had to choose I'd rather only be a doctor." But he's a shrewd businessman. He recognized a market before other doctors did and opened an IVF clinic in 1982, the year after the first American IVF baby was born. He's a pioneer in an area of medicine so new it's still largely unregulated - a field he calls the "Wild West" of medicine.

Dr. Sher talks about why he loves working with infertile couples.

Sher's first clinic has grown into a chain in California; it's one of the largest programs in the country. Doctors in Texas passed around a rumor that Sher was going to open a clinic in Houston. But he doesn't have to. Patients will readily come to him.

Take a photo tour of a Pacific Fertility Clinic.

At least a quarter of the patients at Pacific Fertility's clinics in Los Angeles and San Francisco are from outside California. The clinics even offer interpreters for people phoning from other countries. Drew and Michelle Paras travelled from Las Vegas for IVF, in part because of the high birth rates Pacific Fertility advertises. Michelle says her doctor in Nevada gave her a 27 percent chance of getting pregnant through IVF. "Here, my chances are 47 percent," she says. "That's a huge jump."

Dr. Sher talks with a patient before using ultrasound to check her ovaries.

Success rates do differ from clinic to clinic. Most clinics report their success rates for various procedures to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, and the Centers for Disease Control recently began publishing those statistics. (The report is available available on the Web.) But doctors and patient support groups warn people not to make too much of those rates. Some clinics may have low numbers because they'll take on tough cases, for instance. And the statistics are self-reported. No one systematically checks to make sure clinics are telling the truth.

In advertisements, IVF programs can make their numbers look more impressive than they really are. One Arizona clinic was accused by the Federal Trade Commission of misleading the public by counting every baby born through its program as a birth, even the twins and triplets, which are common among IVF patients. It then compared its rates to national statistics in which a twin or triplet delivery only counts as one birth, the FTC said. In the past few years, the FTC has also forced several other clinics to stop running ads it said used misleading statistical comparisons.

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