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IVF clinics are advertising misleading success rates, study finds

16 January 2017
Appeared in BioNews 884

A number of IVF clinics in the UK could be misleading people with their advertised success rates, a study suggests.

Research looking at the websites of 79 IVF clinics found evidence that clinics often 'cherry pick' their results, leading to the risk of misleading success rates. It found that, of the 53 clinics that reported success rates, the pregnancy rate – which patients often find more important – was reported more frequently (83 percent) than the live birth rate (51 percent).

The study also identified that clinical pregnancy rates were reported in 31 different ways and birth rates reported in nine ways, with many clinics not indicating whether their success rates were in relation to per cycle of treatment or embryo transfer, or followed the use of fresh or frozen embryos. Around 26 percent of clinics displayed results without giving the age of the patients, and 72 percent did not include the sample size on which the figures were based.

Jack Wilkinson, a medical statistician at the University of Manchester and the study's lead author, said: 'Our study shows that success rates are advertised on 67 percent of IVF clinic websites, and many of these may be highly misleading, because clinics can cherry pick their results from a dizzying array of options.

'The concern is that clinics can always construct figures that show their own performance in the best possible light while making competitors look bad. This is not helpful to patients, who may struggle to understand differences in what each clinic reports and may be misled into making comparisons on the basis of incomparable results.'

A separate survey in Poland suggested that 93 percent of people used online resources when researching infertility, and potential patients are likely take into consideration the performance of the clinics. With most UK IVF clinics operating on a private basis, there may also be greater competition to attract potential customers.

Wilkinson said that, while many clinics may be presenting their success rates in good faith, there remains 'a strong incentive to selectively report success rates in a way that exaggerates performance'. 'A lack of binding guidance means that clinics are free to do this,' he added, suggesting that a ban on advertising IVF should be considered.

'Just as advertising of prescription drugs to patients is not permitted, a ban on advertising IVF should be considered if there is no binding standard of reporting,' he said.

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