Health bodies accused of disregarding infertile couples when cost-cutting

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Just one in eight regions in England are adhering to health guidance for fertility treatments, a new report has found.

The fertility treatment watchdog said there is a “patchy” service across England following a rise in the number of health bodies which have cut or reduced the fertility treatments they offer to patients.

Only 12% of local health bodies which commission health care adhere to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence’s guideline on fertility treatments – which says that under certain circumstances, women under 40 should receive three cycles of IVF on the NHS and those aged 40 to 42 should receive one.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s (HFEA) latest report states that this figure stood at 24% in 2013.

Meanwhile the number of clinical commissioning groups which have cut the service altogether rose from 1% in 2013 to 3% in 2017.

And a further 7% are considering a reduced or removed service, the HFEA report adds.

“The result is a patchy service across England, with neighbouring clinical commissioning groups in the same region offering differing levels of access to fertility patients,” the authors wrote.

The British Fertility Society said it was “enormously frustrating” that local health bodies were prioritising cost-cutting while “disregarding” the needs of people with fertility issues.

The HFEA trends and figures report also highlights the changing landscape of fertility treatments including higher rates of cycles using frozen eggs and treatments involving donor eggs and sperm becoming more popular.

Meanwhile, in UK fertility clinics there were 232 cycles of treatment for people using surrogacy in 2016, with 79 births as a result.

Overall in 2016 there were 68,000 IVF treatments performed, with more than 20,000 babies born.

HFEA chairwoman Sally Cheshire said: “Assisted reproduction has come a long way in the 40 years since British doctors pioneered IVF with the birth of Louise Brown.

“With well over a million treatments performed in the UK since records began, and more than 300,000 babies born, as a country we remain at the forefront of fertility treatment.”

Commenting on the report, Dr Jane Stewart, chairwoman of the British Fertility Society, said: “Fertility issues are a blight on the lives of so many young adults but in addition have long-term effects on not only their own quality of life but also their extended families and across generations.

“It is enormously frustrating to see that despite all of this, the broader picture and clear benefits are not taken into account by some commissioners – particularly in England and Northern Ireland – when short-term gains of cost cutting priorities are considered and the needs of this group are largely disregarded.”

Adam Balen, professor of reproductive medicine and surgery at the Leeds Centre for Reproductive Medicine, added: “Whilst the UK has led the way with the research into the causes and management of infertility, unfortunately many couples are denied treatment because of the lack of funding, restrictive eligibility criteria and the huge variations in provision around the country.

“Yet treating infertility has been shown to be cost effective and can significantly improve the overall well-being of families. Relative to many other medical interventions, it is quite inexpensive, and it’s a travesty that NHS funding has been cut by so many clinical commissioning groups over the past few years.

“The funding of IVF is seen to be an easy target – but infertility is a serious medical condition, resulting in huge stress and distress and caused itself by a large number of different medical problems.

“IVF is cost effective and has shown to be an economic benefit to society. The bottom line is that you cannot put a price on a baby.”

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