Medical tourism from China is surging. According to Ctrip (via a recent Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business report), there were over 500,000 outbound medical tourism trips from China in 2016, a 5x increase from 2015. And the average spending per trip was a stunning 50,000 RMB, more than 10x typical Chinese tourist spending.
The leading destinations for these medical tourists are the USA, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Germany, Singapore and Switzerland. And while the most frequent trips are for health check-ups, the most motivated patients are traveling for serious disease treatment and fertility services. Other common services include plastic surgery and anti-aging treatments.
I think the largest opportunity within this growing trend is for foreign IVF / reproductive services. Chinese couples are marrying later and delaying children for career reasons. Plus they can now have second child. So the already large demand for reproductive services in China is growing. But the sector is heavily regulated in China and there are likely no more than 450 licensed sperm banks and reproductive centers in the whole country. Plus there are lots of limitations on reproductive technology. Basically, we have limited supply and large and growing demand for China IVF.
And, unsurprisingly, would-be Chinese mothers are flocking to leading centers in the US, Australia and Singapore, where they are looking for IVF and increasingly egg freezing. Egg freezing is rare in China and forbidden for unmarried women.
To dig into this IVF medical tourism trend, I recently interviewed Kyle Francis, CEO of the Southern California Reproductive Center (SCRC) in Beverly Hills. SCRC is arguably the leading IVF center in Los Angeles. It is where I would go for IVF services personally (note: I have spent my career in healthcare and have been a hospital CEO).
SCRC’s nine offices have seen large increases in patients from China recently and Kyle is a frequent traveler to China to further develop their business. He has a unique front-row seat to the China medical tourism phenomenon in IVF and I thought he would be a great person to ask about what is really going on. Below is our discussion:
Jeff: Can you give me a brief history of SCRC?
Kyle: The Southern California Reproductive Center (SCRC) was established in 1999 and has been at the vanguard of reproductive science. Based in Beverly Hills, we have eight satellite offices in Southern California and routinely serve clientele from all over the world. We are one of the largest and most scientifically advanced fertility centers in California.
We have 7 full-time reproductive endocrinologists, which are basically fertility doctors, and also in-house laboratory scientists. Our services include in-vitro fertilization, embryology and embryoscopes, preimplementation genetic diagnoses, surrogacy, egg and sperm freezing, assisted innovative reproductive technology and IVF financing.
Typically, we work with married couples, single parents and same-sex couples. SCRC is also a teaching facility so we train the next generation of fertility physicians as part of the joint UCLA-Cedars Sinai Fellowship program.
Jeff: How has IVF changed in the last couple of years?
Kyle: We have seen significant changes in reproductivity technology over the last few years. This includes higher adoption of vitrification, which is used for frozen egg transfers. And there is higher use of advanced pre-implantation genetic screens to increase the chances of success.
We are seeing a rise in medical tourism across the world, but especially from families in China. The increasing volume is driven by a growing understanding and acceptance of fertility treatments. In addition, there is a change in the second child policy, an increasing number of late marriages and women choosing to freeze their eggs.
Jeff: What are Chinese families looking for in IVF? What are the most important factors or needs?
Kyle: Fertility preservation is a growing factor, due in part to the fact that people are waiting longer to get married, particularly as women’s career opportunities have expanded. In addition, Chinese families pursuing fertility treatments are seeking the most advanced technologies available, which we believe is an impetus for the surge in related medical visits to America.
Jeff: Has what Chinese families are looking for in IVF changed in recent years?
Kyle: Very much so. There’s incrementally more access to technology that is not necessarily available in China, along with greater access to Western physicians specializing in reproductive medicine. There is also access to other services not available in China such as surrogacy, genetic testing and egg donor services.
Patients are also seeking care in US due to the higher level of legal certainty to US laws over embryo and egg preservation. We are also seeing increasing demand for younger women to freeze their eggs.
Jeff: Do desired IVF services differ in China versus when Chinese families are traveling abroad?
Kyle: Essentially it’s about more choice and more attention. Patients can receive a higher level of access to reproductive health care in the U.S. as a general rule. And the Chinese visitors are able to have more interaction with their physicians, spend more time with nurses and meet with other potential patients.
Jeff: How can US healthcare companies go direct to China in healthcare? Is it a matter of marketing and social media activities? How about broker arrangements and partnerships?
Kyle: At SCRC, we have been exploring all avenues. Social media such as WeChat are obviously powerful tools. These venues also support our educational events and technology exchange programs, which we believe are vitally important for reaching and educating Chinese families. Educational events also help fuel word of mouth referrals.
We also partner with local healthcare facilities in China and will work sometimes with medical brokers if suitable.
Jeff: What is next for SCRC with regards to China?
Kyle: We are looking to add qualified, talented physicians to our team who have an understanding of the Chinese culture. This goes hand-in-hand with our desire to build a stronger local Chinese presence. At the same time, we are looking to establish more long-term relationships with leading healthcare institutions in China.
We are also pursuing plans to open offices in China to allow our physicians to evaluate patients in person before initiating treatment in the U.S. Patient education is very important, especially as the technologies and capabilities in reproductive medicine continue to advance so quickly.
Ok. that’s my take. Thanks for reading.
I think this is ultimately about a big and increasing collision between rising Chinese consumers and improving reproductive technology globally. IVF technology is making amazing strides at just the same time that Chinese households are achieving middle-class levels of wealth and expectations. And as much of the leading technology is located in the West, this collision is resulting in lots of Chinese families flying to the USA – and in lots of Western companies coming to China. I expect all this is going to get much bigger.
Cheers from Beijing, Jeff
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photo courtesy of SCRC