A recent article in The Economist is a reminder of the misery inflicted on couples who struggle to cope with the astronomic costs of IVF treatment, all too often having to re-mortgage, borrow money or downsize to secure the funds they need for treatment.
In many respects the world has become complacent about IVF. In the nearly forty years since the first IVF baby was born, success rates for IVF have increased, and the technologies available to clinicians and patients have transformed what is essentially a very simple process into one that is frequently confusing to couples because of the multiplicity of drugs and techniques offered by different clinics.
In the UK, one in six couples have fertility problems and for each one of them is a personal tragedy with potentially deep psychological repercussions. In many developing nations this tragedy is compounded by stigmatisation, exclusion and domestic violence for the woman who fails to conceive. There is little doubt that many couples are easily persuaded to go for new treatment options and "add-ons" that are neither proven nor necessarily good for their long-term health.
The Economist highlights two issues that play into the mind blowing price tags that come with IVF treatment: unproven treatments usually in the form of add-ons and high drug doses.
I believe the UK Government can address the problems in two ways.
Firstly, it can authorise the HFEA to collect information from clinics on the drugs and drug dosages administered and any add-on treatments employed so that action can be taken against overtreatment and unproven remedies which could risk the woman's health. It should also collect accurate information on the total costs for couples per treatment cycle. Couples can be attracted to a clinic where the advertised cost is low before being told that certain add-ons will increase their chances resulting in a sometimes two to three-fold increase in charges. Publishing the facts about costs would allow couples to make choices without being pressurised in a clinic environment. It is essential that the regulator monitors the drugs and dosages administered to women and total fee charged per IVF cycle by clinics in order to stop unnecessary use of drugs and "add on" interventions.
Secondly, it must address the funding of IVF as a priority. The current situation is unfair and unacceptable. Equal and fair access to health care is one of the founding principles of our NHS. This does not seem to apply when it comes to IVF. We have a Postcode Health Service (PHS) and not National Health Service (NHS) with increasing inequality. The government should establish a National tariff for IVF treatment on the NHS with a fair but realistic price without the addition of unproven add-ons. This allows the government to offer more cycles on the NHS within the existing budget, and end the post- code lottery. Many European countries have achieved this and we can do this in the UK.
The Economist article also mentions about innovative methods like the Walking Egg Technology helping to reduce costs of IVF treatment without the need for conventional laboratory. I am proud to be part of this innovation aimed at increasing global access to fertility care. We hope to bring it to the UK to increase access to IVF treatment.
In the last 20 years much has changed in the field of fertility treatment -advances in technology we could not have dreamed of even twenty years ago. The challenge now is to harness those advances in ways that puts women's health at the heart of every decision, to ensure that current IVF treatment is made less expensive and safer for women and finally to push forward on current exciting research to slash the costs of fertility treatment to make IVF more accessible to couples across the social divide.