NHS 'is failing infertile couples': Report says treatment given low priority

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(First Edition)

FERTILITY treatment is ranked as a 'low priority' by more than two thirds of health authorities, and half do not offer the most basic procedures, according to the first nationwide survey of NHS facilities.

The survey reveals an uneven provision of care for most of the two million infertile couples in the country, for whom a successful pregnancy largely depends on where they live.

Many of the 155 health authorities in England and Wales, and health boards in Northern Ireland and Scotland who took part in the survey, do not have any formal policy for treatment.

In the small number which do offer fertility treatments, a 'combination of ignorance and traditional practices leads many NHS managers to favour inappropriate, less successful treatments . . .' the report, by the College of Health, said.

Only one in four of the health authorities had a contract with a purchaser to provide treatments such as IVF in-vitro (test-tube) fertilisation, or GIFT (gamete intra-fallopian transfer).

However, more than half do fund tubal surgery, which is usually less successful and expensive.

Exactly who is eligible for treatment also varies. In Calderdale, women accepted for IVF or GIFT must be 35 years old or under, while in the neigbouring health region of Wakefield, women are accepted up to the age of 42.

In South Cumbria, couples wanting treatment must have been in a stable relationship for two years, while in West Essex, it is four years.

'Even the definitions of infertility used by health authorities vary . . . with some citing it as just one year of failure to conceive, whilst others cite two, three or even four years.'

John Dickson, director of Issue (the national fertility association), which commissioned the survey, called for a more uniform approach to care.

'It is an absolute disgrace that twice as many health authorities fund tubal surgery as IVF, when IVF is widely regarded as offering a far better outcome for the majority,' he said.

Tom Sackville, parliamentary secretary for health, said that decisions about infertility provision must be taken locally.

Report of the National Survey of the Funding and Provision of Infertility Services; Issue; 021 344-4414.