The Barbados Fertility Clinic: a vacation that really delivers

Sun, sea, sand – and fertility treatments. Debbie Jacob looks at the medical tourism offered in Barbados

Dr Juliet Skinner. Photograph courtesy the Barbados Fertility ClinicOne of the babies born using IVF treatment. Photograph courtesy the Barbados Fertility ClinicSeaston House, Barbados. Photograph courtesy the Barbados Fertility Clinic

Drive past the popular swimming spot of Accra Beach, with its colourful souvenir shops selling local leathercraft and woodcarvings, and you’ll come to Seaston House, facing the Caribbean Sea. The sign is small and inconspicuous, but more and more visitors are flocking to this history-making destination. Seaston House is the home of the Barbados Fertility Clinic, and the clients who seek treatment here make up a new type of visitor to Barbados: medical tourists.

“One out of six couples faces fertility problems,” says Dr Juliet Skinner, founder and medical director of the clinic, which opened in 2002.

Many of the couples who find their way here are computer-savvy professionals who turn to the Internet and medical tourism sites to find facilities to treat infertility, or visit online forums to seek out others facing the same medical issues.

“Infertility is generally defined as the inability to conceive within one year of trying,” says Skinner. “The causes could be simple or they could be complex. There are a number of treatment options; in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) is one of the most successful ways of treating infertility.”

Simply put, IVF is the process of removing a woman’s eggs to be fertilised outside the body. If her partner has a normal sperm count, the sperm are placed around the removed eggs; if the sperm count is low, sperm are injected into the eggs. It takes three to five days for fertilised embryos to grow. Two weeks after the embryos are transferred, the woman takes a pregnancy test.

“The process is no more uncomfortable than a Pap smear,” says Skinner.

Patients who come to the Barbados Fertility Clinic remain in Barbados for about ten days. The entire process takes about six weeks and begins with medication and injections that women do while still at home, with drugs they order via an Internet pharmacy. Through a phone call, patients are walked through the process of giving themselves the injections.

Americans seek treatment in Barbados because it is cheaper than in the US: at about US $5,500, the cost of treatment in Barbados is roughly a third of the cost of treatment in the US.

“Patients from the UK come because the success rates are 2 1⁄2 times that of the UK,” says Skinner. “Cost-wise, treatment here is about the same.”

Another deciding factor is the local option of donor eggs. The clinic has a recruitment programme in Barbados, throughout the region and even internationally, and is able to access donor eggs more quickly than programmmes in larger countries. “Abroad, you might wait two to three years for donor eggs, where our waiting period is about four months,” says Skinner. Egg donors fly into Barbados from South Africa, the US, Europe and all over the world.

The initial contact with the clinic for those who are considering treatment in Barbados begins with an e-mail or a phone call. Patients receive a reply with basic information about the clinic the same day that they make contact. Soon after that initial call, Skinner makes an appointment for a 45-minute phone call to gather a patient’s history.

It doesn’t take potential patients long to realise that the Barbados Fertility Centre has a high success rate – 54 per cent. Skinner credits the clinic’s unique approach to fertility treatment, a mind/body programme, with its success. It is one of the first clinics in the world to offer this innovative approach. She also credits her staff. “We have a team of experts who are excellent in what they do, and patients are not a number.  It’s a more personal approach here.”

Couples coming to the clinic can book their own vacation package or enlist the aid of the clinic, which has someone on staff to organise the trip to Barbados. One option features a chauffeur picking patients up at the hotel and bringing them to the clinic, where they have a stress-reducing massage, reflexology, and acupuncture. There are specially trained counsellors to deal with reducing stress. “It’s not unusual for women to have acupuncture on the day of the embryo transfer,” says Skinner.

She credits Barbados for the relaxation that is an integral part of her treatment. “There’s something to be said for sitting on a deckchair and relaxing on the beach when you’re going through this procedure. We know how important stress reduction is for a positive outcome in this procedure. Many women have to drive for hours to get to a clinic in their own country. They have stress even finding a parking spot. Here, everything is so relaxed.”

That relaxed atmosphere brought Skinner back to the region to work as an obstetrician/gynaecologist before she opened the clinic. Born in Barbados, Skinner, an island scholar, studied medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. She lived and worked in Ireland for 11 years before returning to Barbados in 1999, and opened the clinic with a team of Irish consultants.

Today, the Barbados Fertility Clinic has satellites – diagnostic and pre-screening centres – in Antigua, St Maarten, and Trinidad, the largest. There are plans for expansion, and the future for the Barbados Fertility Clinic looks bright as medical tourism continues to grow.

“I have seen studies which say that medical tourism is going to mushroom out about four-fold,” says Skinner. She expects to see more couples from the US, as Americans deal with healthcare reform and the growing cost of procedures such as fertility treatment.

Of the babies delivered as a result of treatment at the clinic, about 75 per cent are single babies, one per cent are triplets, and the rest are twins. The clinic has about 300 cycles of treatment a year, from which about 175 babies are born. There are 15 – 20 new consultations a week.

“The success rate has improved, but there is the feeling that it can always be even better. Time is of the essence. There is so much that can be done now, and couples need to know that they should not remain silent, that they should seek treatment as soon as possible.  The younger you are, the easier it is to deal with infertility,” says Skinner.

From the white sand of Barbados to state-of-the art medical equipment, the Barbados Fertility Clinic believes it offers a package that truly delivers – if you’ll pardon the pun.

Cedella’s story

Cedella* had been married for a year when she went to her doctor and discovered the shocking news: she had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – many small ovarian cysts, which would make it almost impossible to get pregnant. She spent 18 months doing ovulation tests and taking Clomid, a fertility tablet. The treatment didn’t work.

Then Cedella found out about the Barbados Fertility Clinic. This is her story.

“Just before celebrating our third wedding anniversary, a friend spoke to us in confidence about someone who had become pregnant after seeking treatment at BFC. At this point we were frustrated. All our friends were starting families, and we wanted our own baby. Family members didn’t know about my PCOS and had started wondering why a healthy, well-educated, successful young couple had no children.

“I knew a little about IVF, but it had never really crossed my mind that this might work for us. My husband and I did our Internet research. Two months after hearing about BFC, we spoke to Dr Skinner over the phone. She explained that IVF was essentially a leap of faith.

“Our family in Trinidad thought we went on a ten-day vacation to Barbados – and it was a vacation, too. I left Barbados relaxed and carrying two embryos. Only one survived and approximately nine months later we had our perfectly healthy, bouncing baby boy, the true love of our lives.

“We had four frozen embryos left. Just before our son turned two, we decided to have a second IVF cycle. We were treated in Trinidad’s satellite unit first, where we received all the necessary medications, and then went to Barbados for embryo transfer. Two out of our four embryos survived the thawing process, and I came back to Trinidad pregnant again. I am now almost five months pregnant. Again, one embryo survived.

“I feel incredibly blessed to become a mother again, especially since I was told by doctors in Trinidad that I might never be able to have children. Life for us would have been very different if we were unable to have children. I owe all my gratitude to the amazing people at BFC.”

* The patient’s name has been changed to protect her privacy

BFC Fact File

IVF has been around since 1978, when British-born Louise Brown became the first baby to be delivered through this process. The first baby born as a result of  treatment in the Barbados Fertility Clinic was a boy born on October 8, 2003, to a Barbadian couple. Skinner, who was then winding down her ob/gyn clinic, delivered him at the Bayview Hospital.

About 15 per cent of her patients are from Barbados and about 50 per cent from elsewhere in the Caribbean. The rest are mostly from the UK and the US. Between 60 and 70 per cent of the patients have made the Barbados Fertility Clinic their first choice for fertility treatment. Couples from the Caribbean come because they have limited options. The Barbados Fertility Clinic is the only facility in the region that has the gold seal of approval from the Joint Commission International (JCI), which is the US health-facility accreditation programme responsible for healthcare industry standards.

While in Barbados, Debbie Jacob stayed at the family-owned, oceanfront Rostrevor Hotel in St Lawrence Gap. The hotel features air-conditioned efficiency apartment-style rooms, fully equipped kitchens, a terrace that overlooks the sea, cable TV, and wireless Internet. There’s a pool and beach access.