The Progress Educational Trust’s (PET) annual conference has become an established event in our December calendar and this year we continued the tradition. This year’s conference was entitled ‘Reality check: A realistic look at assisted reproduction’ and dealt with a range of topics including evidence, regulation, informed choice for patients and the ongoing ‘add-on debate’ (which I wrote about in a previous post). In total, there were 14 talks across the day, with each session followed by an opportunity for the audience to ask questions or offer comments to the speakers. In this post, I am going to reflect on some issues around evidence that emerged throughout the day.
We have entered ‘an era of profound unreliability’ said James Duffy in his talk about the production of evidence in which he detailed how research being done in the field of assisted reproduction often falls short of accepted standards of scientific rigour. For instance, findings from trials that are run entirely in one clinic cannot be translated to other clinics or patient populations, and he contended that research is often driven by commercial interests rather than an interest in the production of ‘gold standard’ evidence. Yet Nick Macklon explained how the reliance on randomised control trials (RCTs) in assisted reproduction research sets a very high bar for what counts as acceptable evidence, at the risk of ignoring other valuable data that are produced outside of the RCT framework. While RCTs are, with good reason, considered to offer the highest level of evidence in medicine, there are significant barriers to conducting RCTs in infertility research; challenges include the large required sample size, the long timeline from research design to implementation and results, and the issue of the trial sample not reflecting the patient group due to strict participant selection criteria. We were reminded that IVF was highly controversial and not supported by an RCT when developed in the 1970s (as I learnt from my visit to the Science Museum), which could serve as an argument both for tighter regulation and monitoring, as well as the benefit of allowing space for technological and scientific innovation. Sally Cheshire, chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), brought the attention back to the patient in her speech (available in full here), emphasising that while it is crucial to continuously develop and improve IVF procedures we need to critically question whether it is fair for patients to pay for this knowledge production, especially if it could potentially cause physical, psychological or financial harm.
Another point that complicates the issue of evidence in contemporary fertility treatment is the discrepancy between what is offered in IVF clinics and the recommendations provided by the HFEA. Søren Ziebe opened the first session with a provocation whereby he questioned why over half of IVF cycles use pre-implantation genetic screening (PGS) when the HFEA determines this procedure to be without reliable evidence that it improves chances of pregnancy. Later in the day, Chris Barratt also argued that intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI, where the sperm is injected directly into the egg) is vastly overused in fertility clinics. ICSI is used in over half of IVF cycles despite the HFEA and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines stating that this procedure should only be used for male-factor infertility, which accounts for only about a third of infertility cases.
The fact that practices of fertility clinics go against national recommendations on such a large scale sends contradictory messages to patients, which can cause feelings of confusion and suspicion of professional judgement. These feelings are further amplified by the issue of significant gaps in current knowledge about reproductive biology and assisted reproduction; unexplained infertility and failed implantation emerged several times across the day as significant grey areas with an urgent need for better understanding. In the discussion sessions there was some conversation about the complexities of doctor-patient consultations as sites where the practice of evidence-based medicine intersects with individual clinical practice and patients’ needs, wants and choices. While debates about add-ons have been ongoing for years, it is on the ground, in the fertility clinic consultation room, that the actual discussions with patients about add-ons takes place. One practicing fertility specialist noted how, rather than simply running a search for evidence in a medical database and recommending fertility treatment based on this, consultations are more akin to a conversation and negotiation between the doctor and patient. Others noted how it can be extremely difficult to say ‘no’ to a patient who has a strong belief in or desire for a particular treatment or test regardless of its evidence-base, especially when the patient will potentially go elsewhere and pay for it. Explaining the mixed evidence for certain procedures is challenging in a situation where patients are often willing to take great chances in the hope that a treatment might work.