Just relax…

For anyone with any experience at all of fertility problems, there’s a general understanding that probably the worst thing someone can say to you is “just relax…”, and yet this is the advice a TV doctor gave on ITV’s Lorraine programme. Dr Hilary Jones apparently said to a caller who was asking for advice after three unsuccessful rounds of IVF;  “What I would say is, and this is probably the hardest thing to do, is just relax about it. There have been so many people that I’ve known who’ve gone through several rounds of IVF and nothing happens. And when they’ve given up, and gotten on with their lives, it miraculously happens naturally… Sometimes stress itself can have a very negative effect. So try living your life as normally as you can.”

I suppose this just shows why you should stick to asking fertility specialists for advice rather than a TV doctor, but there has been an understandable backlash from fertility patients and the charity Fertility Network UK. There is certainly a lesson to be learned for TV producers about the risks of getting a GP, who is by nature a generalist rather than a specialist, to offer advice to those who have already been treated by experts in any field of medicine. But should any doctor, even if they are a GP rather than a specialist, be telling people to “just relax” or suggesting that stress might be to blame for infertility? Apart from anything else, we all know that fertility problems cause huge amounts of stress – and that telling someone who is trying to conceive to “just relax” is about as helpful as telling them to get a dog, go on holiday or any of the other helpful advice that non-experts in the field like to pass on.

There is another problem here though, and that’s to do with blame. Suggesting that your stress levels might be responsible for your blocked fallopian tubes or endometriosis is nonsense, and yet many people do end up feeling that it’s their fault they can’t conceive in a culture which encourages you to believe that you can make the difference to outcomes by thinking positive, clean eating or complementary therapies. The truth is that none of these things are going to unblock your tubes or get rid of endometriosis, and for a medical professional to suggest that getting pregnant might miraculously happen naturally if you just relax is quite bizarre.

Even the response has been interesting, with Woman & Home covering the issue with a headline “Lorraine’s Dr Hilary faces backlash following ‘insensitive’ comments during IVF discussion’. They were not ‘insensitive’ comments but insensitive comments – and that’s the understanding that we still need to change!

New fertility group for South East London

I’m going to be running a new fertility group for Fertility Network in Greenwich in South East London which you are welcome to join! We are having our first meeting on the evening of Tuesday March 27. It will be great to see you if you are able to come along!

I first went to a group when I was going through IVF myself and found it hugely helpful to meet other people who understood how we felt. I was a bit uncertain about going along – I didn’t think I was the sort of person who went to group meetings – but in fact it wasn’t gloomy or depressing or any of the other things I’d expected. If anything, it was actually quite uplifting to be in a room full of people who weren’t going to stat asking questions about when we were going to have a baby and why we were leaving it so late…

I’ve run a number of different fertility groups over the years since then and have seen at first hand the benefits they can bring. So why not come along and join us and find out for yourselves…

You can join our brand new Facebook page to find out more or you can get in touch via the contact page here – and hope to see you on the 27th.

IVF success rates

I’ve just been reading about an overseas clinic which claims an IVF success rate of more than 90% per IVF cycle started, including frozen embryo transfers. I could understand why this would seem an incredibly attractive prospect to anyone who needs fertility treatment – not only is IVF cheaper than it would be in the UK, it also appears to be far more successful. But is it? Does any clinic really have a success rate of 90%?

One of the main differences for the apparent discrepancies between outcomes at clinics here in the UK and the rates some overseas clinics claim is the way that they are presented. Here in the UK, you can check validated IVF outcomes on the HFEA website. These are accurate figures for live births over a set period. Some of the amazing rates you see on overseas clinic websites are not for live births but for positive pregnancy tests, and as we know that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, it is not surprising that live birth rates are always lower than pregnancy rates.

The figures you get from the HFEA will also show you the outcomes for women of different ages. Birth rates after IVF in the UK range from  2% to 33% depending on the woman’s age. The HFEA figures show you outcomes over a set period – a specific year, or a three-year period. If you are running a clinic elsewhere and happen to have a month where you have very good outcomes and lots of women get pregnant, followed by a month where no one does, what’s stopping you from using your good month as your “success rate”?  So a success rate may be for a short period, for younger women and it may be pregnancy rather than live birth – and all of these things make a huge difference. What’s more, sometimes the figures are simply wrong. I’ve read some crazy claims for totally impossible success rates, particularly for older women using their own eggs. The truth is that IVF is less successful as we get older, and miscarriage presents a greater risk.

Many overseas clinics offer very good fertility services, but if you are thinking about treatment abroad do be careful about hyped figures and unrealistic claims about outcomes. Know what is likely and what is possible, and be wary of clinic websites claiming successes which are totally out of kilter with anything you’ve ever seen elsewhere, especially for successes for older women using their own eggs, as this may suggest a clinic which is prepared to be somewhat economical with the truth.

The cost of private fertility treatment

New research has found huge discrepancies in the prices people are charged for IVF and for many extras such as blood tests or drugs as reported here in the Times. It can be difficult if you need treatment as you don’t always feel you have time to shop around – but this shows that it is at least worth making a few calls to see whether anywhere closer to you may offer treatment at a lower price. If you do this though, you do need to make sure that the price isn’t lower because not everything is included in the cost you are being given  or because the treatment is not the same. It is also important to be aware that the headline costs on clinic websites often have little to do with the real costs that you will end up paying as a patient.

It’s not just the treatment itself where costs can differ but also the prices paid for any additional treatments which some patients are now considering. When I was looked into this, I was surprised at how big the differences were in the charges for add ons. For example, some clinics were including embryo glue in the cost of an IVF cycle whilst others were charging for it and the costs ranged from £75 to £350. It was a similar picture with endometrial scratch, which you might be able to get free at some clinics across the country by taking part in a clinical trial or which could cost you up to £450. I looked at a small sample of clinics and even in those, found these wide price discrepancies but it does show that it is worth at the very least asking why your clinic is charging what it does if it is much more than others.

Finally, don’t forget that the cost is one part of the equation. If you are having to travel a long distance to the clinic – or if it is overseas – this in itself adds costs both financial and in terms of stress. You will also want to check out the clinic details on the HFEA website to see the latest outcomes from treatment and to see how it is ranked by inspectors and other patients. There is a section in the patient ratings about cost which is particularly relevant as it shows whether people ended up paying more than they expected for treatment at that particular clinic so make sure you have at least considered these things before committing yourself.

New report from the HFEA

The HFEA has  launched its first-ever “state of the sector” report yesterday, providing an overview fertility treatment in the UK, including the success in reducing multiple birth rates to just over 10% of all IVF births.

The report, which brings together previously separate reports on incidents, inspection findings and patient feedback, records how fertility clinics and research laboratories performed in the financial year 2016-17 across a range of criteria. It is designed to give both clinics and patients a rounded view of the health of the UK’s fertility sector.

It shows that through working with the UK’s licensed clinics, the HFEA has reduced the national multiple birth rate from 24% in 2009 to 11% today, a fantastic achievement which has increased the safety of IVF for mothers and their babies and reduced the burden on NHS ante- and neonatal services. This has come without a reduction in birth or pregnancy rates, with the latter rising from 24% in 2008 to 32% today.

The report also shows that in 2016-17 there were 132 treatment and research clinics working under licence in this country, of which 34% are privately run, 29% are in public/private partnership, and 22% are NHS only (the remaining 15% are research only). During that same year the HFEA carried out 81 inspections as part of its yearly inspection cycle.

There is also specific focus on how patients experience treatment, and the new ways being developed to receive patient feedback and pass it on to clinics. A new star rating system has recently been launched on the HFEA website, giving patients the chance to rate their clinic directly and which has already been used over 700 times.

Sally Cheshire CBE, Chair of the HFEA welcomed this new report as a sign of open and healthy governance, and a continuing commitment to improving patient care:

“This report shows the full range of work, undertaken by both us and clinics, that lies behind the more than 76,000 treatment cycles performed in the UK each year, and outlines the importance of us working together to ensure patients, donors and the donor-conceived get the highest possible quality care.

“It is particularly pleasing to see that the multiple births rate has fallen consistently across the vast majority of the sector and is now very close to the 10% target we set for clinics some years ago, without a reduction in births. And it is heartening to be able to discuss with clinics real examples of patient experiences. It’s so important that patients have a voice, and I hope that the UK’s clinics will listen to what is being said.”

The report also details non-compliances, including adverse incidents, and areas for improvement. In many ways, there has been good progress, with fewer than 10 instances of non-compliance identified by inspectors in 14 main areas of the Code of Practice across all clinics in 2016-17. And of the 299 reported non-compliances overall (a slight rise from the previous year), almost all were resolved within the deadline set. This shows a sector that is open to constructive feedback and continuous improvement.

However, performance wasn’t all positive and the report reveals some areas for concern. The number of reported incidents increased from 497 in 2015 to 540 in 2016. Of these, 325 were categorised as ‘grade C’, 176 were classed as ‘grade B’, with one ‘grade A’ incident – the most severe.

Sally Cheshire CBE urged clinics to consider the impact incidents have on patients, and ensure Britain’s IVF sector maintains the highest standards:

“While the number of incidents and non-compliances must be placed in the context of the many thousands of treatments being performed in the UK each year, the fact is that all incidents, whatever the category, can be very upsetting for patients and must be avoided wherever possible. Non-compliances risk undermining the hard-won reputation for quality and rigour that the UK’s fertility sector has established over the last 25 years.

“In line with our commitment to open, frank and constructive regulation, we will continue to work with all our licensed clinics so that they strive to continually improve and maximise the chances of success for patients seeking their much longed-for families.”

The full report can be read on the HFEA website: https://www.hfea.gov.uk/

Free IVF cycles

Since 2009, the Lister Fertility Clinic has been offering a small number of free IVF cycles each year to try to help people who are unable to access NHS-funded fertility treatment. The cycles are offered in conjunction with the charity Fertility Network UK and there are some criteria for entering into the draw for the free cycles.

You have to be a UK resident under the age of 42, with a cause for your fertility problems. Your BMI must be in the normal range and you can’t have any children from your current relationship. You can’t have been sterilised in the past and you can’t have had a free cycle at the Lister before. There are also some restrictions on the type of treatment you can have, which can’t include egg donation.

You need to send your entry to Fertility Network UK – and you can find the details here

 

Fertility milestones

In support of National Fertility Awareness Week, the HFEA or Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which regulates the fertility sector, has published data which reveals some new milestones for UK fertility treatment.

More than 300,000 children in total have now been born in the UK from licensed fertility treatment since 1991. Fertility treatment has grown markedly since 2010, with almost a third of all IVF and DI babies since 1991 arriving in the last six recorded years (2010 to 2015).

The total number of treatment cycles carried out in UK clinics also passed a significant milestone in 2015, breaking through the million barrier. The overall number of treatments carried out since 1991 is 1,034,601.

The new data – drawn from The HFEA Register, the oldest and largest fertility database in the world – also reveals that fertility services are used mainly by younger women. The average age of women having fertility treatment is 35 years, which has remained largely static over recent years.

Treatments involving women aged 18-34 remain the largest single group, accounting for 43% of all treatments, while treatments for women aged 40 and over account for just 20% of all treatments with very few treatments being provided to women over 45.

Looking at the different regions in the UK, the data shows that most treatments continue to take place in London and the South East of England, accounting for 42% of all cycles. However, there is a strong representation of large northern clinics in the figures, with the North West now providing more treatments per clinic than any other region, including London. Total clinic numbers vary according to region, ranging from three in Northern Ireland to 22 in London.

HFEA Chair Sally Cheshire CBE welcomed this new data as a sign of a thriving and successful fertility sector: “The figures we have released today show that the UK’s fertility sector continues to be one of the most vibrant and successful in the world. Families using assisted reproduction services across the UK are better served than ever before, and we will continue to encourage all who work in the sector to offer the highest quality support for patients who are both successful and unsuccessful.”

Susan Seenan, chief executive of patient charity Fertility Network UK said “We welcome the publication during National Fertility Awareness Week of the new IVF milestones from the HFEA. The extraordinary growth of IVF in the last six years shows the pressing need for practical and emotional support and advice for the many people facing fertility issues. It is also significant to note that this data underlines that fertility services are used mainly by younger women – aged under 35 – who will have been trying for a baby for at least two years and often more. National Fertility Awareness Week is about challenging perceptions and we hope this helps to dispel any misconceptions about IVF and female age.”

IVF funding situation is “shocking”

The latest figures released by Fertility Fairness earlier this week about funding for IVF treatment have been described as “shocking” by the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Professor Lesley Regan.

Commenting on the fact that so few clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are currently following national guidance and that the number which have completely removed NHS IVF has almost doubled in the last year, Professor Regan said “These figures are shocking and it’s very disappointing to see even fewer CCGs following NICE guidance and providing full access to NHS fertility treatment. Current access to treatment is a postcode lottery and these health inequalities people face are unacceptable. Infertility can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, causing distress, depression, and the breakdown of relationships. IVF treatment is cost-effective and should be available on the NHS. The RCOG is committed to working with UK commissioners and healthcare providers to support them in following NICE Fertility Guidelines.”

Thank you Hannah, thank you Sophie…

Thanks to television news presenter Hannah Vaughan Jones for her brilliant article about her experiences of fertility problems and treatment. I’ve linked to Hannah’s tweet so that you can read the full article which is behind a paywall – and it is something we should all read as a reminder that things haven’t changed, that people are still feeling isolated, lonely and ashamed about their fertility problems, that people are still having to be brave, to pretend they are fine when inside it feels so bleak and desperate. It’s so wonderful when people in the public eye like Hannah and her husband, ITV news presenter Lewis Vaughan Jones, are able to be open about their fertility problems. It makes such a difference to those who are struggling with their own difficulties to know that it isn’t just them, that it can happen to anyone.

Also this week, BBC reporter Sophie Sulehria began a three-month series on PM on BBC Radio 4 charting her experiences of fertility and treatment. She and her husband Jonny have had a long journey involving endometriosis, premature ovarian insufficiency and unsuccessful IVF treatment. It’s really worth listening to Sophie’s story here – she is just so brave to do this in public and it will make such a difference, not just in terms of raising awareness of what it’s actually like to have fertility treatment but also in helping others who are going through fertility problems and treatment themselves. Sophie’s recording of her experiences of a cycle, of embryo transfer, of the two-week wait and a pregnancy test will resonate with anyone who has been there themselves.

Thank you Sophie, thank you Hannah – you are brave and brilliant and we thank you for being able to talk about this and wish you all the best for the future xx

Have you reviewed your fertility clinic?

If you’ve had fertility treatment recently or are currently having treatment at a UK clinic, did you know that you can give a review of your clinic’s services on the HFEA website? Your reviews are used to create a patient rating for the clinic which other people can then see on the website along with the outcomes from treatment there and a ranking from the HFEA inspectors.

It’s good to do this if you have a spare moment – and it really won’t take long – as it helps to build up a picture of the clinic for others who may be considering having treatment there.  You will be asked a series of questions about the clinic such as

  • How likely are you to recommend this clinic to friends and family if they needed similar care or treatment?
  • To what extent did you feel you understood everything that was happening throughout your treatment?
  • To what extent did you feel you were treated with privacy and dignity?
  • What was the level of empathy and understanding shown towards you by the clinic team?

You will also be asked about cost for those who had to pay for treatment and you will be able to say whether it was more, less or about the same as you’d been anticipating. Finally, you are able to add any further comments about your experiences which will be seen by the regulator but will not appear on the website.

Choosing a fertility clinic is not easy, particularly if you live in London and the South East where there are so many clinics to choose from, and the views of other people who’ve been to a clinic can be useful.