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HFEA to investigate claims of poor practice in UK fertility sector

08 May 2017

By Shaoni Bhattacharya

Appeared in BioNews 899

The UK's fertility regulator, the HFEA, says it will be investigating a series of allegations concerning the fertility industry made by the Daily Mail newspaper last week.

The paper ran several articles as part of an investigation, raising various issues around egg donation, egg sharing, egg freezing, patient costs and serious side-effects of IVF.

'We are very concerned by the allegations,' said Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA. 'We have already contacted the clinics involved and our inspectors will investigate each allegation. If we find poor practice in a clinic, we will take regulatory action.'

The UK Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, called the concerns raised 'serious and worrying'.

Among the allegations made by the paper, which sent undercover reporters posing as would-be parents to fertility clinics, are that some providers may be exploiting women by offering them 'cash for eggs', that is the clinics offer to waive their fees for IVF in return in for donated eggs or even cash in some cases.

While egg sharing is legal, and a long-standing practice in the UK, the Mail suggests that the HFEA's guidance is being flouted.

'Quite rightly, it is illegal for clinics to pay cash for egg donations beyond a fixed sum of up to £750 for expenses. The IVF watchdog… also states categorically that no one should be pressurised, bribed, or cajoled into donating,' says an editorial in the paper.

It adds: 'Yes, egg sharing can be a good thing, but subjecting potential donors to duress or slick salesmanship is reprehensible.'

Another major concern raised by the Daily Mail was that women were being given false hope on the outcomes of egg freezing. In one case, an undercover reporter was told that she would have a 65 percent chance of having a baby if she froze her eggs, while current figures suggest that only 15 per cent of IVF cycles with frozen eggs are successful, said the Mail.

The investigation also flagged up a huge discrepancy in the reporting of cases of OHSS by fertility clinics and the NHS. It notes that 60 cases were reported by clinics to the HFEA last year, while the NHS reported 865 women – of whom 836 were emergency admissions, being hospitalised for OHSS in the same year.

Only severe cases of OHSS – which can be fatal, need to be reported to the HFEA. Mrs Cheshire noted: 'Mild or moderate cases, which are less serious but still very worrying for patients, may also involve a hospital admission and are therefore included in the NHS data. We believe that we do have a good picture of the severe and critical cases.'

The Mail's investigation has 'highlighted some issues' said Professor Adam Balen, chair of the British Fertility Society in a commentary for BioNews. But he warned: 'The meaning of published statistics has been misinterpreted and certain aspects of the investigation have been given far more weight than is just. Rather than serving the public good, this has the potential to leave vulnerable patients scared and confused.'

He added: 'Meanwhile, we will continue to argue in support of NHS funding for fertility treatment, the lack of which we believe remains a factor driving potentially contentious practice.'

Other concerns raised by the newspaper investigation include:

  • Clinics offering financially-strapped patients high-interest loans
  • The inappropriate sale of expensive fertility 'add-ons'
  • The sale of fertility drugs (available from some high-street pharmacies) at inflated prices
  • NHS hospitals allowing private patients to 'queue jump'

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

24 July 2017 - by Dr Raj Mathur 
The fourth in a series of videos filmed at the Progress Educational Trust's recent public debate 'Fertility Treatment Add-Ons: Do They Add Up?'...
26 June 2017 - by Sally Cheshire 
The second in a series of videos filmed at the Progress Educational Trust's recent public debate 'Fertility Treatment Add-Ons: Do They Add Up?'...
19 June 2017 - by Professor Adam Balen 
The first in a series of videos filmed at the Progress Educational Trust's recent public debate 'Fertility Treatment Add-Ons: Do They Add Up?'...

24 April 2017 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
A claim for judicial review that sought to challenge changes to the way the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) presents data about UK fertility clinics on its website has failed...
03 April 2017 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
The controversial issue of IVF 'add-ons' – techniques and treatments offered to fertility patients on top of standard IVF – has been the subject of intense debate and media attention since last November's BBC Panorama's documentary, which claimed that many techniques advertised on fertility clinics websites were not backed up by good scientific evidence of success...
05 December 2016 - by Lucas Taylor 
There is a lack of quality evidence on the benefits of almost all fertility clinic add-on treatments, a study published in the BMJ has suggested...
05 December 2016 - by Professor Adam Balen 
Professor Adam Balen argues that the recent Panorama investigation into the use of add-ons in fertility clinics is a misrepresentation of these clinics and a misunderstanding of the data...
31 October 2016 - by Sarah Norcross 
The Progress Educational Trust's event on preserving fertility was held in Edinburgh on 25 October...

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