Egg freezing patients ‘misled’ by clinicson March 13, 2024 at 1:48 am

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Some clinics don’t make clear the chances of successfully having a baby, the BBC has found.

Natalie Thomas

Women who freeze their eggs are being misled by some UK clinics about their chances of having a baby, a fertility charity says.

The Fertility Network was reacting to BBC analysis that found 41% of clinics offering the service privately could be breaching advertising guidance.

The watchdog which sets guidance says clinics “must not give false or misleading information”.

It comes as a record number of people are freezing their eggs.

The UK fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), also said it was concerned about the information given to those considering egg freezing.

A successful pregnancy is not guaranteed by the procedure.

Egg freezing for non-medical reasons, also known as social egg freezing, is an increasingly popular method for women to preserve their fertility in order to have children at a later date.

The procedure is not normally available on the NHS unless you are having medical treatment which could affect your fertility, such as chemotherapy or gender-reassignment.

There were more than 4,000 egg freezing procedures in the UK in 2021, compared with nearly 400 in 2011, according to HFEA.

BBC iPlayer

Anna Collinson explores the full story of egg freezing.

BBC iPlayer

When a person wants to have a baby, the frozen eggs can be defrosted and used in fertility treatments, such as IVF.

No two cases are the same and there are many variables which can influence a patient’s chance of having a baby, such as their age, their health, how many eggs were successfully frozen and later thawed – plus the quality of the sperm.

The BBC analysed the websites of the 78 fertility clinics that advertise private egg freezing in the UK.

We found 32 websites (41%) didn’t make clear a patient’s chance of successfully having a baby in the future.

Of that group, most of the websites were advertising successful thaw rates of 80-95% – a process where eggs are defrosted to be used in fertility treatments.

But these clinics did not make clear that the chances of having a baby are dramatically lower because there are multiple stages of the process before an embryo is successfully implanted, through fertility treatments such as IVF.

“I feel very angry for patients because they are being misled by this level of information,” said Dr Catherine Hill from charity, The Fertility Network.

Few patients in the UK have come back to use their frozen eggs, but for those who do, the success rates are slightly lower than IVF using fresh eggs – which is about 20-30% per round depending on age. It could be as low as 5% for people in their 40s, according to HFEA.

Egg freezing

The BBC analysis also found that 31 of the clinics published defrost rates without stating how many patients the information was based on or specifying their sources.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the government watchdog, has guidance about the information which should appear on clinic websites.

It says egg freezing is a “significant financial and emotional commitment” and patients must be “properly informed” about success rates and costs.

The BBC spoke to more than 30 women who had undergone the procedure, as part of the documentary Egg Freezing and Me. They described it as expensive and invasive – but also empowering.

Some of them felt that they had not been properly informed by clinics about the true costs of egg freezing or their chances of success.

‘I felt very alone’

At 39, Natalie Thomas decided to freeze her eggs with a private fertility clinic but struggled to understand what her chances of having a baby were, based on the clinic’s information.

“It was a journey that I felt very alone on and that I was the one that was driving it and was having to do a lot of research myself,” said Natalie, who is a science teacher with a background in statistics and data.

Natalie later discovered on the fertility regulator’s website that the clinic she had chosen had lower success rates for pregnancy compared with the national average.

“Had I known this information beforehand, I don’t think I would have frozen with that clinic,” she says.

Natalie moved in with her mum in 2020 to save money for the egg freezing. Two years later – age 41 – she decided she was ready to become a parent

She ended up spending £18,500 on medication, two rounds of egg retrieval, two years of storage and IVF treatment. She had the IVF at a different private clinic.

After a successful pregnancy she gave birth to her son, Huxley, in March last year.

“Holding Huxley for the first time, it was such a wonderful feeling,” she said.

“I’m aware that I’m so lucky, and it’s not the same for all women.”

Natalie and her son

We also showed our analysis to the British Fertility Society, a group for industry professionals.

A spokesperson for the group raised concerns about the use of what he described “unusually high” defrost rates being displayed on some websites, without explaining what they are based on.

Dr Ippokratis Sarris questioned if the statistics could possibly relate to “a cherry-picked group of patients” which he said would be “bad practice”.

“It gives patients unrealistic expectations and it’s not fair on other clinics who are trying to be open and transparent,” he said.

A patient’s personal chances of success should be discussed when they go to a clinic in person, added the doctor, but the information on a clinic’s website must still be transparent and should never mislead.

The HFEA says it is the responsibility of the clinics to ensure patients are given all the information they need to be properly informed. It said it was concerned that does not always happen. It would like wider regulatory powers to fine clinics.

A spokesperson for the Competition and Markets Authority said that all information provided by fertility clinics “must be clear, timely and easy to understand”.

“We set out what we mean in the CMA’s Guidance for Fertility Clinics on consumer law. For example claims relating to egg freezing success rates are likely to be misleading if they cannot be proven, if they fail to explain the effect of age on the likely outcome, or if they fail to explain the difference between egg survival rates versus live birth rates.”

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