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Private IVF patients not getting all facts to make informed decisions – watchdog

IVF treatment (Ben Birchall/PA)
IVF treatment (Ben Birchall/PA)

Patients paying privately for fertility 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) has 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 over 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“including superiority claims” without offering proof, and “clinics making success rate claims based on incorrect or out of date information”.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.

The body said the clinics contacted have now made changes to their practices to benefit patients.

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.

In 2020, the CMA raised concerns about some fertility clinics’ practices, such as providing unclear price information and advertising misleading success rates.

It 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% 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, so 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 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (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 (ASA) to ensure clinics comply with consumer law.