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IVF is one of the UK's greatest scientific achievements - so why do patients still struggle to access treatment?

15 August 2011
By Susan Seenan
Deputy chief executive, Infertility Network UK
Appeared in BioNews 620
Thirty years after the birth of the first IVF baby, you would expect the country that pioneered the technique to lead the world in providing access to fertility treatment. At the very least, the UK would guarantee fair and equitable access for eligible patients. But you would be wrong. Patients across the country are still fighting to get the treatment they deserve.

Infertility is a medical condition.  Guidelines issued in 2004 recommended that eligible couples in England and Wales should receive three full cycles of treatment.

So what has gone wrong? Why does the UK now lag behind many other countries in giving patients access to fertility treatment despite this guidance? Recent surveys have confirmed that - while some PCT offer the full three treatment cycles - some only fund one or two cycles. Five PCTs refuse to fund any treatment.

Among PCTs that fund treatment, some fail to fund frozen embryo transfers. Many others have restrictive access criteria, which mean eligible patients are denied access to treatment available if they lived elsewhere. This is totally unfair on patients - access to treatment for medical conditions should not depend on your postcode.

The UK's NHS was created in 1948 out of the ideal that good healthcare should be available to all, regardless of wealth. It was not designed simply to treat life-threatening illnesses, but as a comprehensive service, available to all, free at the point of use and based on clinical need, not the ability to pay. Infertility patients have the same clinical need as any other patient and deserve access to treatment.

People don't choose to be infertile. While there will always be limits on the amount of infertility treatment which the NHS can fund, patients should not suffer because some PCTs refuse to accept infertility is an illness.

Infertility changes you as a person. It is something which you live with every day of your life; whether you have a family through treatment or by other means, such as adoption, or whether you face a life of involuntary childlessness.

The emotional and psychological effects are profound and reach into every part of your life. They affect relationships with family, friends and colleagues. Unless you have been through infertility, it is difficult to understand the feelings of guilt, anger, shame and total despair that overwhelm many patients.

Finding out that you can't have a baby is devastating. The desire to reproduce is a fundamental part of life. When reproduction fails, it has real consequences; a huge impact on many aspects of a couple's life. Many experience distress, depression and ill health. Why do we treat depression and mental ill health on the NHS, but patients still struggle to access fertility treatment?

Infertility Network UK leads the National Infertility Awareness Campaign (NIAC), which has - for many years - worked to end the postcode lottery and replace this with a fair and equitable infertility service for every patient, irrespective of where they live. As part of this campaign NIAC has launched a survey to help understand the problems we know people encounter accessing NHS treatment.

We can use the survey responses to highlight patient experiences; helping us fight for better NHS funding. The survey only takes a few minutes to complete online. If you can't complete the online survey, you can receive a hard copy by emailing niac@infertilitynetworkuk.com

Thirty years ago infertility was an illness without a cure. Today there is a treatment that can help many patients conceive. The NIAC patient survey will help detail the difficulties many face while trying to access the fertility treatment they are entitled to.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
The National Infertility Awareness Campaign Survey
SurveyMonkey |  2011
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