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Fertility tests R Us

January 4th, 2006

Dr Petra

Crikey, we’re only four days into 2006 and already one of my sex predictions has come true!

Actually I was cheating a little since I’d had a heads up that new developments in fertility testing were on the horizon, I just didn’t know they’d be being launched so quick.

Anyway, in case you missed the extensive media coverage today, the story is as follows. A UK scientist has teamed up with a medical devices company to create a rather clever sperm test. The device mimics the female cervix. Men place a semen sample into the kit and around an hour later it measures for them how many sperm have made it through the ‘cervix’ and thus show if their sperm are active enough to fertilise an egg.

I’ve nothing against this test. I think it’s a very innovative piece of technology.

But I do have some concerns about how the innovation will be marketed and how people will respond to this news story.

The PR company working with the product have been actively targeting press outlets for several months prior to this launch, specifically selling-in the story that this test will save men’s embarrassment, get fertility problems identified more quickly and thus enable couples to get fast treatment for fertility problems.

And they’ve done a cracking job. There’s been wall-to-wall press coverage with all stories mentioning the product name (Fertell), and how it will save men’s blushes, is quick, easy and according to many UK papers, will ‘fast track couples through the NHS’.

Which is where the problem lies. The NHS is already overstretched and whilst those publicising the device are telling the media it’s something GPs are welcoming with open arms, in fact this isn’t strictly true. The test and associated press coverage is going to create anxieties and a new market of people concerned about fertility. Those people will be contacting their GP and will be expecting referrals to limited fertility services. What’s going to happen if the ‘fast tracking’ they expect doesn’t appear?

Just because this test will indicate a sperm mobility problem it doesn’t necessarily mean the couple are infertile, and it certainly won’t guarantee a ‘fast track’ through the NHS – particularly if lots of new cases of fertility concern present at the doctors. Which after all this fuss you can be pretty sure they will.

GPs already make it clear what you can do if you’re planning a baby. They suggest you consult them when you plan to start trying for a family to get a health check and advice about safe and healthy eating, conception information and tips on giving up smoking and alcohol. They also warn that it can take up to a year for the average couple to conceive – and that is perfectly normal.

But within the media coverage of this new fertility test (which made the front page of many papers) the message has frequently been that this one-year wait isn’t normal, but is actually a problem, and this test will be a means to bypass this period.

However those whose fertility is absolutely fine will still find they may take a few tries before becoming pregnant, so this could lead to worries for those who ‘pass’ the test but don’t get pregnant (and again more pressure on the NHS when they start consulting their doctors too).

The other drawback with the media coverage is that not all of it has indicated how this test will only reveal some fertility problems – meaning couples could ‘pass’ this test but not necessarily get pregnant. And most of the coverage implies if you do detect a problem the ‘fast tracking’ through the NHS is going to lead to those problems being resolved, possibly with IVF. But it may be the case that the test reveals fertility problems that can’t be overcome – with or without fast tracking.

And what’s going to happen when our right wing press also start clamouring for this test to be available on the NHS or pestering for more fertility services? I support people’s rights for fertility testing and treatment but within the UK at the moment this is a limited service – we don’t have free and unlimited access to fertility treatments. Most media reporting hasn’t touched on this at all.

While I think it’s great that as part of your pre-pregnancy planning you could give up smoking, cut back on alcohol, exercise appropriately and eat a balanced diet, along with popping your folic acid tablets and taking a fertility test. If there is a problem with your sperm technically you could identify it sooner.

But at £80 a go this isn’t something your average couple is going to be able to afford, so for all those people reading the press coverage and had their focus directed toward male fertility but can’t afford the test there’ll either be increased (and probably needless anxiety) or again a rush for the doctors to see if they can be tested anyway.

I’m completely in favour of self-management of your sexual and reproductive health, but that will only work if it’s supported by adequate information, isn’t going to create a market for products based on anxiety, and certainly not if it’s something that’s going to put pressure on an already overstretched health service.

For more information about fertility visit:

The British Fertility Society (this includes information about fertility testing, clinics, treatment and NICE guidelines on IVF provision on the NHS).
Infertility Network UK
Calculating your fertility
– a clear and useful guide from Women’s Health

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