IVF clinics have been put on notice by consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over widespread misleading advertising techniques.
In general, the ACCC expressed concern over the use of technical medical terms in advertising which can confuse the ordinary person, as well as selective reporting of birth success rates.
"The ACCC reviewed website content from all major Australian IVF clinics and found that some made success-rate comparisons without adequate disclosure about, or qualification of, the nature of the data or graphics used to make the claim," says ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court.
"In addition, some IVF clinics used technical terms understood by industry participants but which may be misleading to consumers without further clarification or explanation."
As an example, some clinics referenced a "clinical pregnancy rate" on their websites which included ectopic pregnancies or pregnancies where no heartbeat was ever detected, whilst an ordinary person would likely take that rate to mean a live birth rate. The ACCC says that photographs of newborn babies sometimes accompanied these success rate figures on websites.
"The Australian Consumer Law applies to the advertising of all goods or services offered to Australian consumers, including complex medical procedures such as these," Court says.
"The ACCC expects that all IVF clinics will take care to ensure that success-rate comparisons are clear and accurate, and based on data that is explained in non-technical terms so that consumers can rely on it to make informed choices about which IVF clinic to use."
Under Australian Consumer Law, it is illegal for a business to engage in conduct that misleads or deceives or is likely to mislead or deceive consumers. Penalties for false, misleading or deceptive conduct include fines of up to $1.1 million.
The ACCC's investigation into IVF advertising arose following a complaint from the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, a regulatory body that receives patient complaints regarding the conduct of medical practitioners.
As part of the review, the ACCC worked with the Fertility Society of Australia, the IVF industry's peak body, to improve industry wide awareness of, and compliance with, the Australian Consumer Law.
The Fertility Society of Australia continues to work with IVF providers to improve transparency about success rate claims and comparisons.
Court says that misleading advertising was widespread throughout the IVF industry and for this reason, the ACCC made the strategic decision to work with IVF clinics to eliminate this behavior rather than engage in litigation. However, she notes that IVF providers are now "squarely on notice."
"The ACCC will continue to monitor complaints received about claims made by IVF providers and won't hesitate to take further action if IVF providers are making false or misleading claims," she says.
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