Hawkins on fertility clinics

Infertility is big business in the United States. Couples eager to conceive feed a growing, largely unregulated fertility industry that grosses more than $3 billion a year.  Professor Jim Hawkins of the University of Houston Law Center undertook the first empirical study of how fertility clinics market themselves on the Internet – what they emphasize and what they leave unsaid.  It might be assumed that would-be parents involved in the often lengthy and always costly process of assisted conception would be most interested in success rates and cost.  But Hawkins found only 56 percent of the 372 clinics with websites posted their success rate on their “Home” or “About” pages and only 55 percent of them made any mention of price. Hawkins also explored the role race plays in fertility advertisements and the use of emotive selling points such as pictures of beautiful babies and the words “miracle” and “dream.” He concluded by recommending tighter governmental regulations and greater diligence by the industry itself in policing its own members. His research will be published in an upcoming edition of the Indiana Law Journal. Hawkins answered a few questions about his study and the business of making babies:

Q.) How can potential clients compare and choose a clinic when nearly 50 percent do not post their success rates or costs out front?

The fact that clinics do not list prices really increases the costs people face when they search for the best clinic—patients have to call the clinics or even visit to get pricing information.  Coupled with the fact that clinics bundle the treatments they provide into packages differently, it makes price comparisons very difficult.  Success rates are easier to find because federal law requires that clinics report their rates (even if they leave them off of their websites).  Interested patients can see most clinics’ success rates on government websites like this one http://www.cdc.gov/ART/ARTReports.htm.

Q.) The vast majority of fertility clinics belong to a professional association, so do they set fees for standard procedures or regulate advertising and other areas?

The major professional association does not set any fee schedules that clinics need to follow, but it does have advertising guidelines.  The problem I found in my research was that a surprising number of clinics ignore these guidelines.  For instance, the professional association requires that clinics only compare their success rates to national averages because comparisons between individual clinics are misleading.  Yet, only 34.30% of the websites I evaluated followed this guideline.  The other clinics making comparisons made illicit comparisons to other groups of clinics.

Q.) Did you find evidence that clinic websites are geared toward white couples?

My research found that 97.28% of the websites that contain pictures of babies have pictures of white babies, and 62.93% have pictures of only white babies.  I also found that only 15.86% of clinic websites’ Home and About pages advertised that the clinics offered services in multiple languages. Finally, I found that racial minorities are not represented among the fertility doctors themselves.  Of the physicians presented on clinic websites, 79.89% were white, 2.14% were black, 4.27% were Latino, 8.27% were Asian, and 5.43% were of other races. These findings are obviously troubling, and they might help explain why some racial minorities seek help from fertility doctors at lower rates than whites.  If members of racial minorities do not see clinics as welcoming, it could be a serious barrier to accessing fertility care.

Q.) What sort of government and industry regulations do you hope your research will inspire?

I hope that the research will encourage legislators to take a closer look at this industry because the industry’s attempts to regulate itself have not been successful.  When over half the industry fails to follow basic advertising rules, the time has come for the government to take a more active role in policing misconduct.  Also, I hope that policymakers and the industry will consider making the price of fertility services easier for patients to understand.  With loans, the federal government requires all lenders present the cost of the loan the same way.  I think fertility clinics could have a similar requirement to present general pricing information about their services in a uniform manner to enable patients to price shop between clinics.

Click here to download Hawkins’ research.

To schedule a media interview with Hawkins, contact Carrie Criado, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing, 713-743-2184, cacriado@central.uh.edu; or John T. Kling, Communications Manager, 713-743-8298, jtkling@central.uh.edu.