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ACCC puts IVF clinics 'on notice' over misleading success rate claims

by Madeleine MorrisABC [Australia]
November 13th, 2016

Logo of  Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) located on wall of office.

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Some of Australia's major IVF clinics have changed how they advertise success rates after an investigation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) found a number had made misleading claims which could confuse consumers.

ACCC commissioner Sarah Court told 7.30 some players in the industry had been peddling false hope to couples desperate for a baby.

"We had concerns with a significant proportion of the clinics," Ms Court said.

The concerns fell into two general areas: the use of medical terms in advertising which could confuse the lay person, and selective reporting of success rates.

For example, some clinics advertised a "clinical pregnancy rate" which an average person might understand to mean a live birth of a baby, but actually included ectopic pregnancies or pregnancies where no heartbeat was ever detected.

Selective reporting of success rates included only reporting the number of cycles at the clinic in question, not failed cycles at other clinics.

"For example, a clinic reporting, say, an 85 per cent success rate within two cycles might have not included five previous failed cycles for that woman at another clinic," Ms Court said.

Both types of claims could mislead consumers, she said.

The ACCC would not reveal which clinics had changed their advertising as a result of the investigation, but Ms Court said of the 34 corporate groups investigated, the consumer watchdog had specific concerns over the advertising of about 10 of them.

'Advertising had been a bit home-grown'

David Molloy, chair of industry body the Fertility Society of Australia's IVF Directors' Group, said the investigation had been "a good thing" for the industry.

"A lot of advertising had been a bit home-grown so if there are areas where clinics' claims weren't accurate or as verifiable as they should be, it's a really good thing they've been straightened up," he said.

Assisted reproduction has become a fiercely competitive industry in Australia, with more clinics coming online and low-cost operators now challenging the market dominance of larger players including Genea, IVF Australia and Virtus Health.

Around 34,000 women a year have fertility treatment, and one cycle of IVF at a premium clinic can cost up to $12,000.

At the newer, low-cost clinics, which typically treat younger women with fewer complications, one cycle can cost $2,500.

IVF costs Australian taxpayers around $250 million a year in Medicare rebates, with no limit on the number of cycles a woman can receive a rebate for.

Dr Molloy said the increased competition was partly behind some of the misleading claims.

"There is increased competition for a static number of patients and particularly the small units are under pressure," he said.

However, the ACCC's Ms Court said larger players had also changed their advertising in response to the investigation.

In February, 7.30 reported concerns had been raised by leaders in the IVF field that a number of players in the industry were peddling false hope to desperate couples.

"I think it's very aggressive marketing," IVF pioneer Alan Trounson told 7.30.

"They're portraying it as being something that's easily accessible, will fix your problem and you'll be very happy. And that's not altogether true, right? We don't help everybody."

Ms Court welcomed the industry's response to the consumer watchdog's investigation and said clinics had now been put on notice.

"The industry has been responsive, they recognise the importance of [accurate marketing] and they know we will be watching."

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