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HFEA to investigate claims of poor practice in UK fertility sector

8 May 2017
Appeared in BioNews 899

The UK's fertility regulator, the HFEA, says it will be investigating a series of allegations concerning the fertility industry made by the Daily Mail newspaper last week.

The paper ran several articles as part of an investigation, raising various issues around egg donation, egg sharing, egg freezing, patient costs and serious side-effects of IVF.

'We are very concerned by the allegations,' said Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA. 'We have already contacted the clinics involved and our inspectors will investigate each allegation. If we find poor practice in a clinic, we will take regulatory action.'

The UK Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, called the concerns raised 'serious and worrying'.

Among the allegations made by the paper, which sent undercover reporters posing as would-be parents to fertility clinics, are that some providers may be exploiting women by offering them 'cash for eggs', that is the clinics offer to waive their fees for IVF in return in for donated eggs or even cash in some cases.

While egg sharing is legal, and a long-standing practice in the UK, the Mail suggests that the HFEA's guidance is being flouted.

'Quite rightly, it is illegal for clinics to pay cash for egg donations beyond a fixed sum of up to £750 for expenses. The IVF watchdog… also states categorically that no one should be pressurised, bribed, or cajoled into donating,' says an editorial in the paper.

It adds: 'Yes, egg sharing can be a good thing, but subjecting potential donors to duress or slick salesmanship is reprehensible.'

Another major concern raised by the Daily Mail was that women were being given false hope on the outcomes of egg freezing. In one case, an undercover reporter was told that she would have a 65 percent chance of having a baby if she froze her eggs, while current figures suggest that only 15 per cent of IVF cycles with frozen eggs are successful, said the Mail.

The investigation also flagged up a huge discrepancy in the reporting of cases of OHSS by fertility clinics and the NHS. It notes that 60 cases were reported by clinics to the HFEA last year, while the NHS reported 865 women – of whom 836 were emergency admissions, being hospitalised for OHSS in the same year.

Only severe cases of OHSS – which can be fatal, need to be reported to the HFEA. Mrs Cheshire noted: 'Mild or moderate cases, which are less serious but still very worrying for patients, may also involve a hospital admission and are therefore included in the NHS data. We believe that we do have a good picture of the severe and critical cases.'

The Mail's investigation has 'highlighted some issues' said Professor Adam Balen, chair of the British Fertility Society in a commentary for BioNews. But he warned: 'The meaning of published statistics has been misinterpreted and certain aspects of the investigation have been given far more weight than is just. Rather than serving the public good, this has the potential to leave vulnerable patients scared and confused.'

He added: 'Meanwhile, we will continue to argue in support of NHS funding for fertility treatment, the lack of which we believe remains a factor driving potentially contentious practice.'

Other concerns raised by the newspaper investigation include:

  • Clinics offering financially-strapped patients high-interest loans
  • The inappropriate sale of expensive fertility 'add-ons'
  • The sale of fertility drugs (available from some high-street pharmacies) at inflated prices
  • NHS hospitals allowing private patients to 'queue jump'
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