A University of Illinois at Chicago study published in the January issue of Fertility and Sterility shows that the majority of fertility clinic Web sites does not adhere to their own association's advertising guidelines.
The study also found that services offered at private clinics and academic clinics were similar, but private clinics were more likely to publish success rates, use comparative marketing, and offer financial incentives.
Many consumers rely on the Internet to gather health information, and "the concern is that vulnerable patients may be misled by information that does not give the whole picture," said Dr. Tarun Jain, assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the UIC College of Medicine and senior author of the study.
Advertising guidelines adopted by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART) and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) seek to improve the accuracy of online information for patients. The guidelines, which are mandatory for membership in SART, require clinics to provide specific information about how in vitro fertilization outcome statistics are reported, mandate that clinics follow Federal Trade Commission guidelines, and warn against the comparison of success rates between clinics.
In the new study, researchers evaluated 289 SART-registered clinics (211 private and 78 academic) with functional Web sites.
They assessed several Web site characteristics including the publication of success rates, additional data to support success rates, comparison marketing, and the presence of a disclaimer stating that "a comparison of success rates may not be meaningful because patient medical characteristics and treatment approaches may vary from clinic to clinic."
The researchers found that approximately half of the Web sites published success rates, and of those, the percentage adhering to the advertising guidelines was low in all categories evaluated.
"Despite an attempt to clarify assisted reproduction information on the Internet, there is a great deal of disparity among how clinics publish success rates on their Web sites," said Jain. "Patients need to carefully evaluate the information presented on Web sites, and they need to know what questions to ask when they meet face-to-face with a physician."
Thirty-six percent of private clinics and 22 percent of academic clinics complied with the advertising guidelines by providing specific information about the method used to calculate success rates. Only 44 percent of clinic Web sites that published success rates included the mandatory disclaimer statement.
The researchers also evaluated Web sites for advertising specific services, including donor egg program, embryo and egg cyropreservation, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, sex selection, shared-risk financing and 100 percent money-back guarantees.
Private clinic Web sites were significantly more likely than academic clinics to offer financial incentives, including shared risk financing, and to use the catchphrase "100 percent Money Back Guarantee."
According to Jain, the ASRM/SART advertising guidelines have not been strictly enforced. However, in some cases, the FTC has audited and penalized fertility practices for misrepresenting the success rates of their in vitro fertilization services.
Jain recommends that infertility patients not rely solely on success rates published on fertility clinic Web sites.
"Patients should meet with a prospective physician and have their questions answered in person," he said. "Success rates will vary depending on the patient's diagnosis, age and other factors, but unfortunately, many patients choose a practice based on information obtained on the Internet."