Private fertility clinics are leaving the NHS with annual bills of about £120m for treating sick and premature babies born to their clients, research shows.
A four-year study of 350,000 fertility patients found that private clinics charge parents large sums — but rely on the NHS to pick up the bill when things go wrong. That means the private infertility industry, which is worth about £300m a year, effectively gets a £120m annual subsidy from taxpayers by relying on the NHS.
Dr Gulam Bahadur, a senior consultant fertility specialist at North Middlesex University Hospital in London, who led the study, said: “The people operating these clinics are taking the profits and not paying anything for the mess they are making.”
It is the first time the cost burden on the taxpayer of the IVF industry has been revealed to the public. While the clinics charge women to get them pregnant, the NHS then pays for everything else, such as the cost of caring for twins born prematurely, or treating the life-threatening condition of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.
“No other industry is allowed to keep its profits and pass on costs to the national budget in this way,” said Bahadur, who will detail his findings at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology annual meeting in Vienna this month.
IVF involves giving a woman hormones to produce eggs that are extracted under anaesthetic and fertilised with sperm to create embryos which are implanted in the womb.
Bahadur said clinics favoured complex, expensive forms of IVF which made more profit but also led to more problem pregnancies, especially multiple births such as twins and triplets.
He and colleagues found that low-tech intrauterine insemination (IUI), where sperm is injected into the womb, would be as successful, with fewer problems for the NHS.
Private IUI treatment costs £800-£1,300 a cycle, according to the NHS, compared with up to £8,000 for IVF, so patients are routinely steered towards IVF.
Britain’s 133 fertility clinics are regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). Its data, used in the study, shows IVF is used 10 times more often than IUI — 319,105 IVF procedures between 2012 and 2016, compared with 30,669 IUI ones.
The researchers also found that the IVF clinics were far less successful at getting women pregnant than their statistics suggest. “We found that 73% of people who have IVF treatment never get a baby,” Bahadur said.
Infertility affects an estimated 3.5m Britons and treating it has become so profitable, due to the NHS subsidy, that it is attracting private equity investment. They call it the “femtech” market with one firm, Bowmark Capital, explaining on its website that it decided to invest in a company called Care Fertility, which provides IVF treatment, because it “operates in a growing market, due to declining fertility rates and other lifestyle factors”.
Care Fertility, which has nine clinics and annual turnover of £40m, was sold for an undisclosed sum this year to another private equity firm, Silverfleet Capital.
The HFEA did not respond to the question of why the NHS should pay to treat sickly IVF babies. “We have worked closely with fertility clinics over the last 10 years and only 10% of all IVF births are now multiple births,” it said.
Elizabeth Owen is clinical director for women’s services at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, which offers IUI on the NHS. Owen said she treated 200 women a year and 40%-50% went on to have babies. She said success was more limited in women aged over 38 but added: “We have been doing this for 20 years and never produced triplets.”