The number of publicly funded IVF cycles dropped by nearly 14 percent this financial year in the UK, an investigation by the GP magazine Pulse has revealed.
The fall in NHS-funded fertility treatment comes despite a rise in demand and there is growing concern as to whether only those who can afford private treatment will be able to receive IVF. With the NHS pressed to make efficiency savings of £20 billion, the reduction in publicly funded IVF may be set to continue.
Richard Hoey, editor of Pulse, said: 'NHS managers in some areas seem to be taking a clear policy decision to downgrade IVF as a priority because [infertility] does not cause people physical harm'.
Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence outline, however, that women aged 23 to 39 who have been infertile for more than three years should be offered three fully funded cycles. But according to a report in the Daily Mail, only one-third of PCTs offer three funded cycles of IVF, while 39 percent currently only fund one cycle. Overall, around 60 percent of all IVF treatment is paid for privately by patients.
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the General Practitioners Committee told Pulse that the availability of IVF on the NHS was likely to continue to fall: 'There continues to be a demand for IVF from couples but there's a mismatch between patients' expectations and resources available'.
In 2010 more than 45,000 women in Britain underwent IVF or ICSI, an increase of 5.9 percent on the number of cycles in 2009. Yet some PCTs have changed their IVF eligibility criteria. NHS Warrington, for example, has decided to withdraw funding for IVF for non-exceptional cases.
Dr Andrew Davies, chair of Warrington Health Consortium and a GP, explained the decision: 'While we fully understand infertility is a condition which causes great distress to couples it does not affect general physical health or life expectancy'.
In the first six months of 2011/12, it funded just seven requests for the fertility treatment. The no-funding policy will be in place for at least another financial year.
With less chance of receiving NHS-funded IVF, many couples are reportedly re-mortgaging their houses or taking out loans to pay for treatment privately. Others, according to the Daily Mail, have chosen to undergo fertility procedures abroad.'It may be time to start thinking seriously about whether we should be means-testing for IVF', said Hoey, 'so that couples who really need fertility treatment can have access to it, however well off they are'.