'Predatory' Advertising by IVF Clinics

Megan Brooks

December 02, 2019

PHILADELPHIA — Not all in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics in the United States follow online advertising guidelines, investigators warn.

"The main area of concern is in the way some websites display success rates," said lead investigator May-Tal Sauerbrun-Cutler, MD, from the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

She presented the study here at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine 2019 Scientific Congress.

The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology updated its core online advertising policy in 2018, and recommends that IVF clinics not display their success rates. The policy also has explicit rules that state that supplemental data be provided in their entirety, and that "no partial presentation" of data is allowed. Adherence to this advertising policy is required for membership in the society.

To investigate the issue, Sauerbrun-Cutler and her colleagues evaluated the websites of 361 IVF clinics to see if they were adhering to the policy, which is geared toward consistent "apple to apple" reporting of pregnancy rates.

About 33% of websites report success rates, contrary to the policy. And of those, only about half had up-to-date data; some cited statistics from 2012 and even 2004.

Many women looking for information on IVF clinic websites may be swayed by some of the unethical advertising and message blogs.

Roughly 46% of the clinic websites displayed a link to the society for data, in compliance with the guidelines. Yet only about 11% of the websites adhered to the requirement that supplemental data be complete and include live birth rates per cycle, per egg retrieval, and per embryo transfer for each age group.

"The dirty little secret of some IVF clinics is that they transfer way too many embryos," said Eve Feinberg, MD, vice president of the Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.

"One clinic in Illinois has a twin rate of 50%, which is malpractice as far as I'm concerned. But they don't advertise that," she told Medscape Medical News. "They aggressively market their own success rates, which is against the rules, and their success rates are skewed because they are not practicing good medicine."

These findings suggest that enhanced enforcement of the guidelines is needed, but that might be easier said than done, given the committee's volunteer structure and the increasing complexity of IVF.

"The society has a volunteer committee that reviews IVF clinic websites. They do a really good job of catching issues, but there is only so much they can do because they only review every 3 years," Sauerbrun-Cutler told Medscape Medical News.

"Many women looking for information on IVF clinic websites may be swayed by some of the unethical advertising and message blogs," said Feinberg. "Highlighting that this is predatory is important."

American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) 2019 Scientific Congress: Abstract O-122.

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