New research finds inequalities in access to IVF treatment on the NHS

New research finds inequalities in access to IVF treatment on the NHS
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The privatisation of healthcare services in the UK has created unequal access to IVF treatment, according to research from the Queen Mary University of London.

According to the study, many people are no longer unable to afford IVF treatment in the UK. The UK’s fertility chief has warned that the cost-of-living crisis and lengthy NHS waiting lists are denying people to opportunity to start a family.

The new study, titled ‘Blurring the divide: Navigating the public/private landscape of fertility treatment in the UK‘, has been published in Health and Place.

Only one-fifth of aspiring parents who participated in the study could afford IVF treatment. In total, 40% of participants said they could just about afford fertility treatment with significant financial planning, while another 40% could not afford to pay for the treatment.

IVF treatment can be extremely expensive

Over 50,000 people access IVF treatment in the UK every year. Some of these are NHS patients, but most pay for their treatment privately. Standard IVF treatment costs between £3-5,000; however, prices can rise to £20,000 with certain add-ons.

It may be assumed that people use either the NHS or private healthcare services to access fertility treatment. However, this study found evidence of a complex and overlapping system where initial IVF treatment on the NHS is followed by private treatment.

“Participants in our study went into fertility treatment expecting they may need to pay thousands of pounds for it, even if they had NHS care. People know there is limited public funding for IVF, and each cycle has quite a low success rate which decreases further over time – so even if NHS care is available, it may not be enough,” said study author Dr Manuela Perrotta.

Some regions have been particularly neglected

Many participants reported not being able to afford the costs of private IVF, and a lack of other options led some to make significant life changes in pursuit of the care they need. The researchers highlighted the emergence of a ‘postcode lottery’. One patient reported moving 50 miles to enter a new catchment area with more favourable funding policies.

“I found out that if I lived in certain areas, I would have had three rounds funded, so we moved [to another city] within about three weeks of finding that out and got the funding,” said the participant.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended that women under the age of 40 should undergo three cycles of IVF treatment. However, access to treatment in the UK is determined by the home address of the patient and their registered general practice. This system means many patients are unable to get help from the NHS. This has led to uneven funding provisions across different regions in the UK. For example, funding cycles are significantly easier to access in Scotland than in London and the southeast of England.

“Our research shows that the boundaries between NHS and privately provided IVF are not as neat as they seem. The hybrid public/private infertility landscape has had profound consequences for all IVF patients. The representation of a public/private divide contributes to inequalities in treatment experience and does not reflect patients’ experiences of IVF in the UK,” said Dr Josie Hamper, a post-doctoral researcher at the Queen Mary University of London.

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