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Watchdog finds Australian IVF clinics are misleading users

21 November 2016
Appeared in BioNews 878

A number of Australian IVF clinics are potentially misleading patients about their success rates, a consumer watchdog has warned. 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says that a number of fertility providers, including 'several major IVF clinics', have been asked to change information on their websites, following an investigation prompted by a complaint from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. 

A review of 34 fertility clinic websites found evidence of reporting misleading pregnancy success rates and also using medical language that could confuse patients.

'The ACCC … found advertisements that reported success rates of up to 90 percent within two cycles for women in their 30s based on their own in-house data, looking at people who had never tried treatment before,' said ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court. 'The data failed to include people who had unsuccessful cycles or who had moved clinics after failed attempts – providing a false impression of high success rates.'

Some clinics advertised a 'clinical pregnancy rate' that could be confused with the live birth rate, but which also includes miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. Court said that a number of fertility patients had reported doctors for presenting misleading information about their chances of success, and that some clinics were peddling false hope to couples desperate for a baby.

Assisted conception has become a competitive and lucrative industry in Australia, with a number of low-cost IVF providers entering the market and challenging the leading fertility clinics in what Court described as a 'race to the bottom'.

Dr David Molloy, chair of the Fertility Society of Australia's IVF Directors' Group, told ABC News that 'there is increased competition for a static number of patients and particularly the small units are under pressure', but added that the ACCC's intervention was a 'good thing' for the industry and would help 'straighten up' a number of clinics using 'home-grown' advertising.

However, rather than pursing legal action, with penalties for false or misleading advertising attracting fines of up to $1.1 million, Court explained that since the conduct was seen as being widespread across the industry, the ACCC decided to send a 'warning shot' to IVF providers to encourage honest behaviour. She added that, since the ACCC's investigation, many clinics have changed the way they advertise.

Despite the changes, Professor Michael Chapman, President of Fertility Society of Australia, said couples should still be cautious of the claims made on IVF websites.

Speaking to Sky News, he said: 'It's like any advertising, the organisations they market are looking to impress people and therefore will always paint the brighter picture but for you as an individual the picture may not be so bright, so that's the important thing. Websites are not the way to get medical advice.'

IVF providers will be continually monitored by ACCC. 'The industry has been responsive, they recognise the importance of [accurate marketing] and they know we will be watching,' Court told ABC News.

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