By: 3 July 2012

New research carried out by the Health Experiences Research Group suggests that despite the fact that one in seven couples in the UK have fertility problems, UK couples are unprepared for the reality of IVF. The findings highlight some shortcomings in clinical practice.

The research, based on interviews with both women and men, suggests that people are often uninformed about what infertility means, what treatment it entails and how likely it is to be successful. With almost a quarter of cases being ‘unexplained infertility’, over 50 percent due to multiple causes and 30 percent of infertility cases in the UK attributable to men, there is a lot of guesswork for couples and infertility tests can be just the start of a long process of elimination. In fact, although treatment and procedures can be unpleasant, those interviewed suggested that it is the waiting and uncertainty that people often find the hardest to cope with.

People also described examples of good and bad practice when dealing with clinicians, from misinterpreting results to failing to do the referrals, but it was the emotional and psychological support either offered or not offered by GPs that stood out. Occasionally people said that their GP had been insensitive or did not seem to understand the impact of infertility. Men in particular felt they had a difficult role in fertility treatment and often felt sidelined by medical professionals, as their partners were going through treatment.

Findings showed that UK couples wished they had known how hard infertility treatment was going to be, both physically and emotionally. For many, the initial awareness of the problem was only the start in a long series of tests that needed to be undergone to rule out different aspects of infertility and to pinpoint what fertility tests and treatments would work best for the couple.

The research highlighted the isolation that couples felt as they were going through treatment even if they chose to tell family and close friends. In many cases they felt unsure about doing this because of the stress that it can put on relationships, particularly with those friends who are having babies without issues.

Dr Lisa Hinton, senior qualitative researcher at the University of Oxford, says: 

“We spoke to a range of men and women between the ages of 25 and 40. The people we spoke to were very honest about their experiences and described in detail the physical and emotional toll that going through the ‘infertility process’ had on them. Not being able to conceive a child can be devastating and the start of a long, lonely journey of tests, treatments and uncertainty in a painful process of elimination, like a rollercoaster with more downs than ups.”