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The U.K. Has Tripled IVF Success Rates Over the Last 20 Years – Here’s How

As improvements in fertility treatment increase and IVF continues to be safe and effective, more people are turning to this type of fertility treatment for help. This increase in IVF success can be specifically seen in the UK, where IVF success rates have been climbing since the 1990s and early 2000s.

February 8, 2021
Annabeth Collis

Since the first IVF birth in 1978, England’s IVF success rate has only continued to grow. Over time, doctors and scientists have learned more about the safest and most successful IVF practices and have used these strategies to help prospective parents start their families. 

From the NHS to the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA), there are lots of IVF resources in the UK -- but there may be more that can be done. 

An image of doctors' tools, including glasses, a notebook, and a stethoscope
For two decades now, IVF success rates in the UK have been improving. To achieve these high numbers, doctors and health organizations have implemented effective medical and emotional care strategies. 

Safety Developments and Strategies

According to IVF birth rate statistics from the HFEA, the 2018 average birth rate per embryo transferred was 23%, with this percentage increasing to 31% for patients under 35 and decreasing to 11% for patients between the ages of 40 and 42. Overall, though, the birth rates for all patients under the age of 43 have increased since 1991, and certain practices have made the IVF process safer for mothers and babies. 

So what are some of these strategies? 

Transferring One Embryo

Multiple births have historically been a risk of IVF treatment, resulting from implanting more than one embryo into a womb. Knowing that transferring multiple embryos increases the probability of a multiple birth, doctors and specialists have also learned that transferring more than one embryo does not have a notable impact on the chance of a live birth. 

IVF practices have adapted with this information, and as a result, the percentage of multiple births has declined considerably from 29.1% in 1991 to just 8% today. While the percentage of multiple births decreases, the success rate of IVF births continues to climb. 

Physical Rest and Stored Embryos

If you’ve tried IVF and it didn’t work the first time, most doctors recommend waiting a few months before trying another round of treatment. This way, your body will have time to rest in between treatments. 

Fortunately, individuals have the option to freeze and store their eggs or embryos for use in the future. In fact, storage cycles have increased from 1,500 cycles in 2013 to approximately 9,000 cycles in 2018. Becoming a popular option, freezing embryos allows patients to control their fertility plan and have more flexibility with their treatment. 

Emotional Resources

Going through IVF and dealing with infertility can lead to feelings of stress and overwhelming emotions. Part of effective, quality treatment is receiving emotional support and guidance. When patients are offered counseling before, during, and after their treatment, stress can be managed and quality can be guaranteed.

Image of a monitor in a doctor's office displaying a patient's vitals and data
Although IVF success rates are rising in the UK, patients are also facing certain complications with accessing and funding treatments. Due to financial cuts within the NHS, patients are having to consider privately funded treatment options. 

Funding and the NHS

Individuals in the UK can pursue either privately funded IVF treatment or treatment that is funded by the NHS. Although there are NHS funded options, funding for IVF treatment through the NHS has been subjected to reductions and cuts. 

Compared to other countries in the UK where funding is set at a national level, such as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, England’s funding is set locally by Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). This means that funding varies by region, and with this discretionary support, funding has been reduced by many CCGs. 

Because there has been this decrease in IVF cycles funded by the NHS, more patients are turning to privately funded treatment. Statistics from the HFEA reflect this shift, showing that the NHS funded 52% of first IVF cycles in 2018, compared to 2017 when 58% were funded.  

All of this is contrasted with the other countries of the UK, where publicly funded IVF treatments are still widely available. Considered the “gold standard” by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), Scotland offers three NHS IVF cycles. Patients in Wales are entitled to two NHS IVF cycles, and patients in Northern Ireland are limited to one IVF cycle through the NHS. Again, when limitations on funding necessitate cost reductions, some CCGs cut funding for IVF, considering infertility treatment to be a lower priority for patients. 

IVF Postcode Lottery

Even though NICE recommends that the NHS offer three full cycles of IVF to women under 40 if they have been trying to get pregnant for more than two years, very few CCGs actually offer three full cycles. 

Because of this, and because of the suspension of all free fertility services by some CCGs in England, a “postcode lottery” has been created. This lottery uses location to determine which patients will be entitled to more IVF cycles funded by the NHS or less. As a result of this system, individuals seeking fertility treatment can face even more obstacles in receiving the help they need. 

A pregnant woman sitting next to a pair of sneakers for a baby
Health services like NICE have recommended that IVF patients should receive three full cycles of treatment if they fall within a certain age range. These experts believe that three cycles allow for the most effective treatment. 

Why 3 Full Cycles is Important

One typical, complete IVF treatment cycle includes ovarian stimulation, egg recovery, insemination, and embryo replacement. Understanding each part of this process, NICE recommends three full IVF cycles because this number of cycles is the most cost effective and clinically effective treatment for women under 40. 

Although age is the primary factor contributing to the success of IVF, women who meet the age guidelines for treatment still benefit from undergoing these three full cycles. Since the number of viable embryos for transfer may vary from cycle to cycle, receiving three cycles evens out irregularities or difficulties from previous cycles and ensures that patients have a greater chance for a successful treatment. 

The flag of the United Kingdom
Despite reductions in NHS funding, the UK’s IVF success rate is a promising development. Since the end of the 20th century, IVF has become a great option for individuals who want to start a family. 

As improvements in science and fertility treatment strategies increase and IVF continues to be safe and effective, more couples and individuals are turning to this type of fertility treatment for help. This increase in IVF success can be specifically seen in the UK, where IVF success rates have been climbing since the 1990s and early 2000s. Even in the midst of shifting NHS requirements and UK health coverage, patients can still navigate different treatment paths and find the best course of action for their needs. 

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