The Health Minister for Northern Ireland, Michael McGimpsey, announced this week that he is to spend £800,000 on publicly-funded fertility services. He aims to cut NHS waiting times, currently up to 2 years, and, by relaxing eligibility criteria, to allow an additional 200 women to be treated before April 2009.
A consultation document, published this month, reviews publicly-funded fertility services in Northern Ireland and suggests removing criteria which restricts treatment to couples in stable relationships. It also recommends that the upper age limit for women receiving treatment using donated eggs should be lowered from 49 years to 39, as it currently is for women using their own eggs.
Fertility services have been available on the NHS in Northern Ireland since 2001. In 2006 Paul Goggins, the then Health Minister, issued a set of criteria to widen access and replace the original 'interim' criteria. Following an Assembly debate a year later, it was decided that a review was necessary in order to target long waiting lists, eligibility specifications and equity of access. After the review criteria requiring couples to have no existing children living with them and that the woman be under 38 at the time of treatment, were relaxed, leading to an extra 233 patients being treated. Officials hope that the new proposals will bring about a repeat of that figure by spring 2009.
In the review paper, McGimpsey notes that the field of reproductive medicine is moving at pace, necessitating constant review. 'This is not an area of treatment where things stand still; technological advances are steadily improving along with success rates', he wrote.
The paper proposes that once waiting times are reduced to 52 weeks, the next priority should be to increase the numbers of IVF cycles available to each patient. The guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which guides clinical practice across the UK, recommend that couples receive 3 publicly-funded cycles.
'It is now time to present the proposals to the public and hear their views on what they want from publicly-funded fertility services' McGimpsey said. The public consultation will close on 13 January 2009.