Behind the headlines: Are fertility test results misleading?

Home fertility tests give women false hope that they can delay starting a family and still conceive successfully, newspapers have warned.

OTC tests may reassure falsely
OTC tests may reassure falsely

Tests to detect hormones linked to women's remaining stock of eggs are given to women who are planning to undergo IVF treatment.

If a test of this 'ovarian reserve' is abnormal, women are likely to have problems conceiving through IVF.

Such tests are also available online and from high-street chemists. But fertility experts have warned that a normal test result does not mean a woman will be able to conceive without problems. Infertility can result from factors not assessed by these tests, they point out.

What are the claims based on?
Reproductive endocrinologist Todd Deutch and colleagues from the Advanced Fertility Centre of Chicago studied outcomes from 1,380 cycles of IVF in women 35 years old and younger.

They found that women with abnormal follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels and abnormal antral follicle counts were up to seven times less likely to have a live birth.

However, women with normal antral follicle counts and FSH levels still had only a 63 per cent chance of a live birth.

At the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in Atlanta, Dr Deutch said FSH and antral follicle counts should not be used to predict fertility in women in the general population.

'These tests don't tell the whole story,' he said. 'Even if both tests are normal, the live birth rate is 50-60 per cent - it's not 100 per cent.'

What do other researchers say?
Dr Allan Pacey, a fertility expert at the University of Sheffield, said that OTC fertility tests can be helpful, but could not identify other potential problems.

'Such tests cannot tell whether or not the Fallopian tubes are blocked or whether the male partner is producing sufficient numbers of good quality sperm,' he said.

'Both of these are important too,' he added. 'A "good result" may therefore give false reassurance and encourage women to wait until the last minute to try to start a family and that is a difficult situation to manage if further problems are uncovered.'

Informing patients

  • Hormone tests can be used to estimate the chances of IVF therapy success.
  • Infertility can be the result of factors not assessed by hormone tests.
  • Home tests may give women false reassurance that they can delay starting a family.

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