Fertility chief warns, long NHS waiting lists reduce chance of pregnancy

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Britain’s fertility chief has warned prospective parents’ chances of conceiving a baby are impacted by long NHS waiting lists for women’s health treatments.

Julia Chain, head of the UK fertility regulator’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), said delays in women getting diagnosed and treated for gynecological problems prevent them from starting IVF quickly, which means it’s less likely to work.

Studies show that success rates decrease as a woman begins fertility treatment. According to HFEA figures, about one-third of IVF cycles in women younger than 35 result in the birth of a baby, compared with one-quarter of women aged 35-37 and one-fifth of women aged 38-39.

“We know that post-pandemic, with NHS waiting lists getting longer and longer, there are many patients who may require intervention before starting treatment. [fertility] Treatment can be hugely disadvantageous if they wait too long,” Chain said.

“It means they are older when they start fertility treatment. The chances of a successful birth decrease with a woman’s age, so time is really of the essence.”

Waiting times for gynecology in the UK have tripled in the last decade and are increasing faster than most other areas of health care, with women now waiting an average of four months for their first hospital appointment.

Speaking at the Progress Education Trust (PET) annual conference, Chain said that healthcare often puts the treatments women need before starting IVF — such as removing fibroids (non-cancerous growths in the uterus) — “on the back burner.” It was not life threatening. He warned there is a “hidden cost” to not dealing with such issues quickly because delays in starting IVF often mean couples need more cycles, which ultimately costs the NHS more.

Antonia Harrison, 32, a doctor from Leeds, was referred for diagnostic tests in March last year to find out why she and her husband, 35, Chris, were having trouble conceiving. He called the hospital in June and was told the wait time was 52 weeks – with over 950 patients waiting in line ahead of him.

“Every month matters when trying to have a baby. I expected I would have to wait, but I never thought it would be this long,” Harrison said.

Feeling they had no other choice, she called again from a private healthcare number and the same receptionist arranged for her to see the same counselor two weeks later. The couple paid £1,100 for appointments and tests, which took around four months to complete, and were able to begin NHS-funded fertility treatment two months after that.

“Once we got the tests done, there were no issues – but there’s such a huge barrier to getting those initial inquiries that it feels like you can’t even be put on a waiting list,” Harrison said. “We were lucky enough to be able to afford it, but it’s sad and frustrating that this is only an option for those who can afford it.”

Delays can also be costly for couples because NHS funding for IVF depends on the age of the woman. Although national guidelines say that eligible patients under the age of 43 should be funded, some regions do not offer NHS IVF to women over 35. Chain said that without NHS support, many couples would not be able to afford fertility treatment and start a family.

PET director Sarah Norcross said: “Fertility treatments may not be ‘urgent’ in the official language of healthcare, but when it comes to patients, such treatments are a highly pressing issue.”

An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS staff are working hard to reduce backlogs from Covid while tackling record pressures. Recent data shows the waiting list is decreasing for the first time since the start of the pandemic, so women are coming forward to get care when they need it. It is vital that they continue.”

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