Majority of ‘add-on’ fertility treatments not supported by science

There is no evidence the majority of “add-on” treatments commonly marketed by private fertility clinics improve chances of having a baby, a damning new study reveals.

An investigation by Oxford University found 26 of 27 routinely offered procedures, some costing more than £3,000, have no rigorous research justifying claims they are effective.

Investigators discovered that one popular treatment which purports to complement in vitro fertilisation (IVF), the recommended treatment for infertility, may even harm the likelihood of pregnancy.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, responsible for regulating the sector, said it was concerned about the increasing marketisation of add-ons but admitted it has limited powers to intervene.

Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, said “Some of these treatments are of no benefit to you whatsoever and some of them are harmful.

“I can’t understand how this has been allowed to happen in the UK.”

Approximately one in seven couples in Britain have trouble conceiving, with increasing numbers of people choosing to delay trying for a family until they are older a contributing factor.

Official guidelines stipulate that the NHS should offer three full rounds of IVF to women under 40 who have not conceived after two years of regular intercourse, although the reality is a postcode lottery and numerous areas only offer one.

The new study, published in the British Medical Journal, analysed claims made across on 74 UK fertility centres’ websites.

Of 276 claims relating to the benefits of fertility interventions, just 16 were accompanied by references citing corroborating scientific research, of which only five were rigorous systematic reviews.

Add-on treatments include blastocyst culture, the practice of waiting longer to transfer embryos from a laboratory to the uterus in the hope that they will be healthier and lead to a higher chance of pregnancy, which can cost around £800.

Assisted hatching, creating a hole in the outer layer of an embryo to improve its quality, which is offered for around £450, is also offered by private clinics.

Another commonly offered add-on which aims to test embryos for abnormalities, Preimplantation Genetic Screening, has in fact been the subject of papers which suggest it lowers birth rates.

The treatment is being offered for £3,500.

Professor Heneghan told the BBC’s Panorama, which collaborated in the investigation, that the exploitation of people hoping to conceive was “One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen in healthcare”.

“The first thing you would expect to happen is that anything that makes a claim for an intervention would be backed up by some evidence,” he said.

Approximately 98 per cent of women aged between 19 and 26 having regular intercourse will conceive naturally within 2 years, however this figure drops to 90 per cent for women aged between 35 and 39.

In around 25 per cent of couples, however, this is no identified cause of the infertility.

Earlier this year experts warned that half of all women prescribed fertility treatments do not need help getting pregnant and are at risk of exploitation by private clinics.

Dr John Parsons, founder and former director of King’s College Hospital’s assisted conception unit, said clinics were having a “free-for-all” at the expense of desperate.

He described a “perfect storm” as women delay getting pregnant to establish their careers, meaning they take longer to conceive naturally which can lead them to prematurely seek fertility treatment.