Choosing a private fertility clinic: what you need to consider

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IF YOU'RE NOT ELIGIBLE FOR IVF TREATMENT ON THE NHS – OR IF YOU WANT A BIT MORE OF A FREE-HOT-CHOCOLATE-AND-SQUISHY-SOFAS EXPERIENCE – there are plenty of private clinics to choose from. But how do you go about researching private fertility clinics and choosing the best one for your needs? Will a private clinic definitely treat you if the NHS won't?

Here are all your questions answered.

Contents

Will a private fertility clinic definitely treat me if the NHS refuses?

The NHS has strict criteria because it’s using taxpayers’ money to help people get pregnant; it therefore has a duty to select patients who are most likely to benefit (preferably first time) from fertility treatment. When you go private, on the other hand, you’re the one paying – which means the clinic’s duty is to you and no one else.

There are no limits to who can and can’t be given IVF under UK law – which means it’s all down to the criteria set by each individual establishment. You’d admittedly be hard-pressed to find a clinic willing to treat an 80-year-old chain smoker who’s already been through the menopause, but still: the admission rules of private clinics are generally less strict compared to the NHS.

To see the criteria for a particular clinic, you can do one of the following:

  • Visit the clinic’s website and search for the acceptance criteria there.
  • Call up the clinic to ask.
  • Use the “search for a clinic” service from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA): click on a clinic you're interested in and scroll down to “Clinic details” to read about the types of people they'll treat.

If you have a high BMI, and/or you're over the age of 40, and/or you have a number of underlying health conditions, you can probably find a private clinic willing to treat you – even though the NHS almost certainly won't. Just be aware that your chances of IVF success are greatly reduced.

Will a private fertility clinic be honest about my chances of conceiving?

It’s both a good thing and a potentially bad thing that private fertility clinics tend to have much looser criteria for treatment than the NHS.

Why might it be a bad thing? Because if you have a combination of factors that make success highly unlikely, you might pay a fortune for treatment and still not be pregnant by the end of it.

That’s an understandable fear, but – thankfully – not the reality in the UK. Even if you think private clinics are all about putting profits over patient satisfaction, such clinics would collapse almost immediately from bad PR and/or bad success rates. Their incentives are aligned with yours: they want to help you if they think they can help, while you only want to pay for treatment if you think there’s a half-decent chance of being up the duff by the end of it.  

What’s more, all fertility clinics must have a licence to operate from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility treatment in the UK. Obtaining (and keeping) a licence involves inspections to make sure their services comply with the HFEA’s Code of Practice. Some critics believe the HFEA doesn't do enough to keep clinics in check, but one thing it does seem to enforce is very strict rules about how clinics report success rates. 

None of this means you should walk into any old clinic and hand over your money without a second thought – especially if you have a tricky fertility condition that some clinics might have better knowledge in than others. Be sure to check each clinic’s reviews and ratings on the HFEA website (more on this below) – and ask them questions about how they’ve successfully treated patients in similar situations as yours (e.g. similar ages, hormone levels, fertility conditions and so on).

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How do I find a list of all private IVF clinics in my area?

You have a few options:

  • Use the “search for a clinic” service from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). You can specify location, and “fine tune” your search by filtering for specific treatments and services.

    You'll then be shown a list of the clinics in your area, and you can click to view additional info about each one – including success rates, opening times, patient ratings, and so on.
  • Alternatively, you can look at my compiled list of the best private fertility clinics in each of the major cities/regions. You'll still need to do your own research on all of them, but it'll save you a bunch of time: 

    The top-rated fertility clinics in the UK
  • Use Google Maps and enter “IVF clinic” in the search field: it'll come up with a list of nearby clinics. (You could try Apple Maps if that's what you usually use, but I hope you have better luck than I did: I found it to be useless.)

How do I choose a private fertility clinic?

If you live in or near a major city, you may have quite a few clinics to choose between. So how do you go about whittling down your options? Here's a list of things to consider:

1: DON'T just a clinic solely by its success rates

While there are variations in success rates, these are often down to differences in the types of patients being treated rather than the expertise of the doctors there.

(For example, one clinic might refuse to treat anyone with a BMI over 30; a high BMI affects IVF success, no matter how good the clinic is, so that particular clinic may have better success rates than one that will treat anyone regardless of their BMI.)

2: DO take a quick look at success rates

But please please check success rates on the HFEA site rather than any individual clinic websites. While the HFEA isn't exactly controversy-free, it's extremely useful because it has very strict rules about how clinics report success rates – and the HFEA can then publish data that can be compared like-for-like.

Clinics, on the other hand, can choose to publish “success rates” however they like – and they can be incredibly cheeky with how they select and present data on their own websites.

There's much more detail about interpreting success rates in my article here – which I recommend you read. For now, though, here's what you need to understand:

  • The HFEA publishes success rates on “live births per embryo transferred”, and it differentiates between clinics whose success rates are “above the national average”, “consistent with the national average” and “below the national average”.
  • The vast majority of clinics are classed as having success rates “consistent with the national average”. One criticism of the HFEA is that this category encompasses a wide range of success rates. For example:

    CARE Nottingham has success rates of 37% (aged under 38), 14% (38 and over) and 29% (all ages combined).

    Harley Street Fertility Clinic has rates of 15% (aged under 38), 6% (38 and over) and 11% (all ages combined).

    The national averages are:

    Under 35: 29%
    35–37: 23%
    38–39: 15%
    40–42: 9%
    43–44: 3%
    Over 44: 2%

    While it’s a shame we can’t directly compare the national averages to the two clinics (as the age ranges are different), we can still see that CARE Nottingham is waaaaay above the national average and Harley Street Fertility Clinic is waaaaay below.

    Granted, these are extreme examples (most clinics are much closer to the national averages). And it's perfectly possible that Harley Street treats a wider range of people than CARE. Nevertheless, it makes sense to take a passing glance at HFEA stats – even if only to question the clinic if you make an appointment with them.

3: Look at reviews and ratings from current and former patients

Use the HFEA’s search for a clinic service to find clinics in your area, then look at each clinic's patient ratings. You can also look at patient ratings on Google and the clinic’s Facebook page. (But bear in mind that the most and least satisfied patients are more inclined to leave a review than those who thought the service was “fine” – so take all ratings and reviews with a pinch of salt.)

Two other places to look are the message boards on Mumsnet and HealthUnlocked: search for the name of your clinic and you’re sure to find thoughts, reviews and anecdotes from former and current patients.

4: Find out how much IVF costs at each clinic

Fertility clinics are free to set their own costs, which means the same treatment could be markedly more expensive in one place compared to another down the street. (Competition should put the kibosh on that sort of thing, but it doesn’t always.)

Beware, though: different clinics have different ways of presenting the cost of treatment to you, and you need to make sure you’re doing an accurate comparison. My article on private IVF costs explains everything and shows how to compare costs across clinics.

5: Double-check you're eligible for treatment

Some clinics have stricter criteria than others. E.g. at ABC IVF in London, you need to be aged 37 or under, have a BMI that’s under 30, and have a normal/good ovarian reserve.

6: Decide which services and amenities are important to you

Is it important to you that they offer a comprehensive counselling service? Many clinics offer this – either free or for a fee – but not all. The HFEA page for each clinic tells you what kinds of counselling (if any) are available.

Perhaps you need a clinic that's open late/early/at the weekend, to accommodate your job/other responsibilities? Some clinics have broader opening hours than others, but you'll need to ask rather than rely on the information on their website: those morning/evening/weekend hours could be reserved for procedures like egg retrieval rather than general scan or blood test appointments.

Is it important that you only see female doctors? The HFEA page for each clinic tells you whether a female doctor is available.

Is parking essential? The HFEA page for each clinic will show if parking is available.

Do you need help with funding? Many clinics offer “baby or your money back” schemes – which have been getting more and more generous over the years. Be sure to read the fine print, though! (Another funding option: many clinics now partner up with loan companies to offer specialist IVF loans.) This article contains more information about funding options for IVF.

7: Be wary of any clinics that push you into pricey “add-ons”

Many clinics have been accused of encouraging you to bump up the cost of your treatment with various add-ons like embryo glue and assisted hatching. While there's some evidence that these add-ons work for some people, they're certainly not the miracle cures that some people make them out to be. (Read my article about IVF add-ons and various fertility supplements here.)

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