Why you shouldn't rely on 'success rates' when deciding on an IVF clinic

Monash and rival Virtus Health listed on the ASX in 2013.
Monash and rival Virtus Health listed on the ASX in 2013. 

Couples desperate to have a baby should not rely on success rates alone to help them choose an IVF clinic, fertility specialists in Canberra have warned.

After the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission put some of Australia's major assisted reproduction clinics on notice over advertising that could mislead consumers about their chances of having a child, two of Canberra's leading fertility specialists said there needed to be more standardisation in how services were compared.

Dr Nicole Sides from Compass Fertility warned prospective parents not to compare clinics purely on numbers.

She said good clinics attracted the most difficult cases, which meant their rates of success would be skewed.

Benchmarking success on numbers alone was also a problem for clinics in regions with older demographics, she said.

"You really have to be careful about comparison because you're not going to get great results in the eastern suburbs of Sydney where everyone is 42, compared to somewhere like Geelong where the average person having a baby there is about 23," Dr Sides said.

Dr Sides said there needed to be more transparency in the way clinics advertised their success rates, especially as some medical terms used could give consumers false hope.

"Say if someone under the age of 35 was going through their first or their second cycle, that pregnancy rate would be helpful to compare, then you'd say 'OK, look at your take home baby rate', which would be two years older. That would be helpful for customers or consumers to compare clinics," Dr Sides said.

"Then you need to write a little proviso on the bottom, i.e. 'we're in a young demographic with lots of young, really healthy people, we're actually attached to a public hospital with a lot of really sick people with endometriosis and this doctor specialises in endometriosis and their results tend to be worse'.

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"That's why it's so hard but on the other hand just because it's hard doesn't mean we shouldn't do it because at the moment it's not suiting any of us to have one group of clinics making claims which we think are just unreasonable because it's putting an expectation up there that's not reasonable and results in a lot of disappointment for patients."

Canberra Fertility Centre's scientific director Dr Chris Copeland said measuring outcomes in terms of live births against the age of the mother would provide would-be parents with a more realistic expectation about their prospects of having a baby.

"I think it's important for the patients that they have a plain language statement about what their success is likely to be. They're looking for a live delivery, that's what they should get," Dr Copeland said.

"It's very easy to get selective groups where the age numbers are low so it looks as though things are better than what they actually are, so age stratification is necessary. We could have some standardisation in that stratification process."

But incoming president of the College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and Genea fertility specialist Dr Steve Robson said standardising the way success rates were advertised would only keep the focus unduly on numbers.

"It's much more complex than buying a car, a washing machine, or a holiday. I would go as so far as to say it's impossible to use a simple set of numbers to provide a valid way to compare clinics or doctors or services," Dr Robson said.

Dr Robson instead advocated for couples and women trying to have a baby to find a doctor they had a rapport with.

"I think the key to finding the right doctor or clinic is the one that spends the most time trying to sort out patients or couples' individualised needs and treatment. That is the hallmark of a clinic that i think you would want to be seen and treated by," he said.