General practitioners (GPs) should use their 'soft influence' to lobby commissioners for better NHS fertility treatment, the president of the Royal College of GPs said at an event hosted by Progress Education Trust (PET) (see BioNews 1193 or listen to the whole discussion on our podcast).
The current National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Guideline says that women with infertility aged under 40 should be offered three cycles of NHS-funded IVF treatment. However, few commissioning bodies in England actually provide this.
Professor Dame Clare Gerada expressed her concern about societal attitudes towards fertility: 'It’s treated as a social factor and as a personal choice, but not a health issue'.
Infertility affects approximately one in six couples trying to conceive, with research showing that it affects men and women equally. In 2020, it was found that 80 percent of GP funding bodies paid for fewer than three cycles of IVF for women under 40, with 64 percent only funding one cycle per couple. The following year, the situation had worsened, with 90 percent of funding bodies refusing to offer the full three cycles to eligible women.
'Sadly, with most of my patients, I have to advise them to go privately because of waiting times on the NHS', she added.
Professor Gerada also cited a disproportionate focus on discussing menopause as a contributing factor to the unmet need.
When asked what GPs can do to help improve access to NHS-funded treatment, she shared that many GPs now sit on integrated care boards that have budgets.
'We can start to write to commissioners to say: "Why are we not getting infertility treatment managed so effectively? Why are many women and men – but predominantly women – in this country spending £400 million per year on private IVF when they should be getting this through the NHS?"'
MP Steve McCabe, who also spoke at the event added: 'I would say we should see [infertility] as a significant and serious health condition, and we should make sure you get the same access to treatment as you would if you had a heart condition or cancer.'
NICE is expected to publish a revised Guideline on fertility treatment in 2024.