The objective of this health technology policy assessment was to determine the clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of IVF for infertility treatment, as well as the role of IVF in reducing the rate of multiple pregnancies.
Clinical Need: Target Population and Condition
Typically defined as a failure to conceive after a year of regular unprotected intercourse, infertility affects 8% to 16% of reproductive age couples. The condition can be caused by disruptions at various steps of the reproductive process. Major causes of infertility include abnormalities of sperm, tubal obstruction, endometriosis, ovulatory disorder, and idiopathic infertility. Depending on the cause and patient characteristics, management options range from pharmacologic treatment to more advanced techniques referred to as assisted reproductive technologies (ART). ART include IVF and IVF-related procedures such as intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and, according to some definitions, intra-uterine insemination (IUI), also known as artificial insemination. Almost invariably, an initial step in ART is controlled ovarian stimulation (COS), which leads to a significantly higher rate of multiple pregnancies after ART compared with that following natural conception. Multiple pregnancies are associated with a broad range of negative consequences for both mother and fetuses. Maternal complications include increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, pre-eclampsia, polyhydramnios, gestational diabetes, fetal malpresentation requiring Caesarean section, postpartum haemorrhage, and postpartum depression. Babies from multiple pregnancies are at a significantly higher risk of early death, prematurity, and low birth weight, as well as mental and physical disabilities related to prematurity. Increased maternal and fetal morbidity leads to higher perinatal and neonatal costs of multiple pregnancies, as well as subsequent lifelong costs due to disabilities and an increased need for medical and social support.
The Technology Being Reviewed
IVF was first developed as a method to overcome bilateral Fallopian tube obstruction. The procedure includes several steps: (1) the woman’s egg is retrieved from the ovaries; (2) exposed to sperm outside the body and fertilized; (3) the embryo(s) is cultured for 3 to 5 days; and (4) is transferred back to the uterus. IFV is considered to be one of the most effective treatments for infertility today. According to data from the Canadian Assisted Reproductive Technology Registry, the average live birth rate after IVF in Canada is around 30%, but there is considerable variation in the age of the mother and primary cause of infertility.
An important advantage of IVF is that it allows for the control of the number of embryos transferred. An elective single embryo transfer in IVF cycles adopted in many European countries was shown to significantly reduce the risk of multiple pregnancies while maintaining acceptable birth rates. However, when number of embryos transferred is not limited, the rate of IVF-associated multiple pregnancies is similar to that of other treatments involving ovarian stimulation. The practice of multiple embryo transfer in IVF is often the result of pressures to increase success rates due to the high costs of the procedure. The average rate of multiple pregnancies resulting from IVF in Canada is currently around 30%.
An alternative to IVF is IUI. In spite of reported lower success rates of IUI (pregnancy rates per cycle range from 8.7% to 17.1%) it is generally attempted before IVF due to its lower invasiveness and cost.
Two major drawbacks of IUI are that it cannot be used in cases of bilateral tubal obstruction and it does not allow much control over the risk of multiple pregnancies compared with IVF. The rate of multiple pregnancies after IUI with COS is estimated to be about 21% to 29%.
Ontario Health Insurance Plan Coverage
Currently, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan covers the cost of IVF for women with bilaterally blocked Fallopian tubes only, in which case it is funded for 3 cycles, excluding the cost of drugs. The cost of IUI is covered except for preparation of the sperm and drugs used for COS.
Diffusion of Technology
According to Canadian Assisted Reproductive Technology Registry data, in 2004 there were 25 infertility clinics across Canada offering IVF and 7,619 IVF cycles performed. In Ontario, there are 13 infertility clinics with about 4,300 IVF cycles performed annually.
Royal Commission Report on Reproductive Technologies
The 1993 release of the Royal Commission report on reproductive technologies, Proceed With Care, resulted in the withdrawal of most IVF funding in Ontario, where prior to 1994 IVF was fully funded. Recommendations of the Commission to withdraw IVF funding were largely based on findings of the systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) published before 1990. The review showed IVF effectiveness only in cases of bilateral tubal obstruction. As for nontubal causes of infertility, there was not enough evidence to establish whether IVF was effective or not.
Since the field of reproductive technology is constantly evolving, there have been several changes since the publication of the Royal Commission report. These changes include: increased success rates of IVF; introduction of ICSI in the early 1990’s as a treatment for male factor infertility; and improved embryo implantation rates allowing for the transfer of a single embryo to avoid multiple pregnancies after IVF.
Studies After the Royal Commission Report: Review Strategy
Three separate literature reviews were conducted in the following areas: clinical effectiveness of IVF, cost-effectiveness of IVF, and outcomes of single embryo transfer (SET) in IVF cycles.
Clinical effectiveness of IVF: RCTs or meta-analyses of RCTs that compared live birth rates after IVF versus alternative treatments, where the cause of infertility was clearly stated or it was possible to stratify the outcome by the cause of infertility.
Cost effectiveness of IVF: All relevant economic studies comparing IVF to alternative methods of treatment were reviewed
Outcomes of IVF with SET: RCTs or meta-analyses of RCTs that compared live birth rates and multiple birth rates associated with transfer of single versus double embryos.
OVID MEDLINE, MEDLINE In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations, EMBASE, Cochrane Library, the International Agency for Health Technology Assessment database, and websites of other health technology assessment agencies were searched using specific subject headings and keywords to identify relevant studies.
Summary of Findings
Comparative Clinical Effectiveness of IVF
Overall, there is a lack of well composed RCTs in this area and considerable diversity in both definition and measurement of outcomes exists between trials. Many studies used fertility or pregnancy rates instead of live birth rates. Moreover, the denominator for rate calculation varied from study to study (e.g. rates were calculated per cycle started, per cycle completed, per couple, etc...).
Nevertheless, few studies of sufficient quality were identified and categorized by the cause of infertility and existing alternatives to IVF. The following are the key findings:
A 2005 meta-analysis demonstrated that, in patients with idiopathic infertility, IVF was clearly superior to expectant management, but there were no statistically significant differences in live birth rates between IVF and IUI, nor between IVF and gamete-intra-Fallopian transfer.
A subset of data from a 2000 study showed no significant differences in pregnancy rates between IVF and IUI for moderate male factor infertility.
In patients with moderate male factor infertility, standard IVF was also compared with ICSI in a 2002 meta-analysis. All studies included in the meta-analysis showed superior fertilization rates with ICSI, and the pooled risk ratio for oocyte fertilization was 1.9 (95% Confidence Interval 1.4-2.5) in favour of ICSI. Two other RCTs in this area published after the 2002 meta-analysis had similar results and further confirmed these findings. There were no RCTs comparing IVF with ICSI in patients with severe male factor infertility, mainly because based on the expert opinion, ICSI might only be an effective treatment for severe male factor infertility.
Cost-Effectiveness of IVF
Five economic evaluations of IVF were found, including one comprehensive systematic review of 57 health economic studies. The studies compared cost-effectiveness of IVF with a number of alternatives such as observation, ovarian stimulation, IUI, tubal surgery, varicocelectomy, etc... The cost-effectiveness of IVF was analyzed separately for different types of infertility. Most of the reviewed studies concluded that due to the high cost, IVF has a less favourable cost-effectiveness profile compared with alternative treatment options. Therefore, IVF was not recommended as the first line of treatment in the majority of cases. The only two exceptions were bilateral tubal obstruction and severe male factor infertility, where an immediate offer of IVF/ICSI might the most cost-effective option.
Clinical Outcomes After Single Versus Double Embryo Transfer Strategies of IVF
Since the SET strategy has been more widely adopted in Europe, all RCT outcomes of SET were conducted in European countries. The major study in this area was a large 2005 meta-analysis, followed by two other published RCTs.
All of these studies reached similar conclusions:
Although a single SET cycle results in lower birth rates than a single double embryo transfer (DET) cycle, the cumulative birth rate after 2 cycles of SET (fresh + frozen-thawed embryos) was comparable to the birth rate after a single DET cycle (~40%).
SET was associated with a significant reduction in multiple births compared with DET (0.8% vs. 33.1% respectively in the largest RCT).
Most trials on SET included women younger than 36 years old with a sufficient number of embryos available for transfer that allowed for selection of the top quality embryo(s). A 2006 RCT, however, compared SET and DET strategies in an unselected group of patients without restrictions on the woman’s age or embryo quality. This study demonstrated that SET could be applied to older women.
Estimate of the Target Population
Based on results of the literature review and consultations with experts, four categories of infertile patients who may benefit from increased access to IVF/ICSI were identified:
Patients with severe male factor infertility, where IVF should be offered in conjunction with ICSI;
Infertile women with serious medical contraindications to multiple pregnancy, who should be offered IVF-SET;
Infertile patients who want to avoid the risk of multiple pregnancy and thus opt for IVF-SET; and
Patients who failed treatment with IUI and wish to try IVF.
Since, however, the latter indication does not reflect any new advances in IVF technology that would alter existing policy, it was not considered in this analysis.
Economic Review: Cost–Effectiveness of SET Versus DET
Conclusions of published studies on cost-effectiveness of SET versus DET were not consistent. While some studies found that SET strategy is more cost-effective due to avoidance of multiple pregnancies, other studies either did not find any significant differences in cost per birth between SET and DET, or favoured DET as a more cost-effective option.
Ontario-Based Economic Analysis
An Ontario-based economic analysis compared cost per birth using three treatment strategies: IUI, IVF-SET, and IVF-DET. A decision-tree model assumed three cycles for each treatment option. Two separate models were considered; the first included only fresh cycles of IVF, while the second had a combination of fresh and frozen cycles. Even after accounting for cost-savings due to avoidance of multiple pregnancies (only short-term complications), IVF-SET was still associated with a highest cost per birth. The approximate budget impact to cover the first three indications for IVF listed above (severe male factor infertility, women with medical contraindications to multiple pregnancy, and couples who wish to avoid the risk of multiple pregnancy) is estimated at $9.8 to $12.8 million (Cdn). Coverage of only first two indications, namely, ICSI in patients with severe male factor infertility and infertile women with serious medical contraindications to multiple pregnancy, is estimated at $3.8 to $5.5 million Cdn.
International data shows that both IVF utilization and the average number of embryos transferred in IVF cycles are influenced by IVF funding policy. The success of the SET strategy in European countries is largely due to the fact that IVF treatment is subsidized by governments.
Surveys of patients with infertility demonstrated that a significant proportion (~40%) of patients not only do not mind having multiple babies, but consider twins being an ideal outcome of infertility treatment.
A women’s age may impose some restrictions on the implementation of a SET strategy.
Conclusions and Recommendations
A review of published studies has demonstrated that IVF-SET is an effective treatment for infertility that avoids multiple pregnancies.
However, results of an Ontario-based economic analysis shows that cost savings associated with a reduction in multiple pregnancies after IVF-SET does not justify the cost of universal IVF-SET coverage by the province. Moreover, the province currently funds IUI, which has been shown to be as effective as IVF for certain types of infertility and is significantly less expensive.
In patients with severe male factor infertility, IVF in conjunction with ICSI may be the only effective treatment.
Thus, 2 indications where additional IVF access should be considered include:
IVF/ICSI for patients with severe male factor infertility
IVF-SET in infertile women with serious medical contraindications to multiple pregnancy