At a glance: IVF watchdog sparks furore in media over standards

Another ‘older woman has IVF baby’ story?
No, it’s rather more fundamental than that. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Association (HFEA), the watchdog for the in vitro fertilisation sector, released figures suggesting that all but five of the UK’s 78 clinics did not measure up to its standards. Many media covered the story, with headlines such as ‘Blunders of fertility clinics revealed’.

Not surprised. Was the HFEA naming and shaming?
It says not. The HFEA published its findings last month but they were not picked up by media until last week. The report, ‘Driving Improvement’, was based on clinic inspections, patient complaints and reported incidents. It awarded minus points for misdemeanours such as breaches of the law or of the HFEA code.

So why the delay in the story coming to attention?
In its original release in December, HFEA said only 80 per cent of fertility clinics met 79 per cent of the standards it had set. HFEA head of media relations John Paul Haytum says the organisation received a number of freedom of information enquiries asking about the scores achieved by individual clinics. The Press Association posted the story that was picked up last week.

Presumably the HFEA was prepared?
Haytum admits he was surprised by the coverage. The HFEA’s comms stance has been reactive. Its ultimate sanction is to remove a clinic’s licence, but the media team concentrated on explaining to journalists that the survey was intended as a ‘snapshot’ of the IVF sector rather than a ‘name and shame’ operation. It also stressed the methodology of the survey, and said scores were derived from information gained between April 2005 and March 2006 – suggesting there has been time for clinics to improve their act.

Still sounds pretty embarrassing for the IVF sector?
There’s more. In a separate develop­ment, BBC’s Panorama this week (15 Jan) focused on ‘the baby-making boom’, investigating claims that couples are being sold overpriced, unproven and unnecessary IVF treatments. Undercover journalists posed as couples seeking treatment at a London clinic that has the highest conception rate in the country. The IVF sector shows no sign of escaping the spotlight yet.

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