Inside fertility clinic failures as investigation reveals hopeful parents risk being ripped off for IVF

Fertility clinics were told to “get on the right side of the law” after an investigation revealed hopeful parents risk being ripped off.

Patients paying privately for treatment are not always getting all the facts they need – such as key price information and success rates – to make informed decisions, according to a review by the competition regulator.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published its findings on IVF clinics’ compliance with consumer law, saying that their review uncovered issues with the majority of clinics investigated, although in some cases the concerns were relatively minor.

Issues included a lack of transparency about in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and egg freezing, clinics advertising success rate claims “including superiority claims” without offering proof, and “clinics making success rate claims based on incorrect or out-of-date information”.

This creates a “misleading impression”, the CMA said, while clinics were also failing to provide information about the evidence for, or risks associated with, treatment add-ons.

Several clinics failed to provide adequate information about the need for, and cost of, an egg thaw cycle should the patient use their frozen eggs in the future. Medication costs were also too broad, instead of giving an accurate price or estimate based on what treatments a couple were likely to need.

IVF costs can vary depending on the treatment, and one cycle can cost up to £5,000 or more. “Add-ons”, which are optional extras offered by some clinics, can cost up to £2,500 per cycle.

Since local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) choose how to delegate NHS funding in England, accessing IVF has become a postcode lottery, forcing thousands of people to pay privately for treatment. About one in seven couples have difficulty conceiving, according to the NHS, and most IVF cycles are unsuccessful.

In 2019, the percentage of IVF treatments that resulted in a live birth was 32 per cent for women under 35, 25 per cent for women aged 35 to 37, and 19 per cent for women aged 38 to 39. For women aged 44 and up, it was only 4 per cent.

Research by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in 2020 found that only 23 out of 135 CCGs in England offer the full three cycles that the National Institute for health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommends. Additionally, the proportion of NHS-funded cycles fell between 2014 and 2019 in all parts of the UK except Scotland, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

The CMA said the clinics contacted have now made changes to their practices to benefit patients. It had first raised concerns in 2020 about some fertility clinics’ practices, and also identified a general lack of awareness that consumer law applies in the sector.

The regulator published guidance in June 2021 to make clear clinics’ legal obligations to treat people fairly, and to help IVF patients understand their consumer rights. As part of the review, the CMA looked at clinics providing about 40 per cent of self-funded IVF cycles in the UK.

It said there were “significant differences” between what clinics include in their package for a single cycle of IVF, making it very difficult for patients to compare prices.

Detailed analysis of 12 clinics in London – which sees a large number of self-funded IVF cycles – found a huge difference between the headline price and the true cost to patients once add-ons and medicines are included.

“The difference between the headline package price and the price to patients when these additional elements of treatment were included ranged from £0 and £2,975, with the total price of a single cycle ranging from £4,200 to £7,085 (excluding medication),” the report said.

Louise Strong, director of consumer protection at the CMA, said: “Buying fertility treatment can be stressful and is very expensive, with each cycle costing several thousand pounds. It’s crucial that people have all the information they need up front when they are comparing options so they can make decisions that are right for them. It’s encouraging to see positive changes from clinics as a result of our work.

“But clinics cannot be complacent. All clinics must get up to speed now to ensure they are on the right side of the law or risk action from the CMA.”

The CMA plans to hold discussions with clinics and the sector, including the HFEA, to explore the possibility of developing a standard approach for what is included in a headline package price for a single cycle of IVF to help patients make better comparisons between clinics. It has also jointly published an open letter with the Advertising Standards Authority to ensure clinics comply with consumer law.

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