No intention to shut ARU, says medical director

THERE is ‘absolutely no intention’ to shut down or remove services from Jersey’s assisted reproduction unit, the Island’s medical director has said after concerns were raised about its future.

Overdale Hospital, where the Assisted Reproductive Unit is based (28956635)
Overdale Hospital, where the Assisted Reproductive Unit is based (28956635)

Patrick Armstrong said that a redesign of the service over the next six months, timed to coincide with the retirement of the Island’s leading fertility expert, Neil MacLachlan, would seek to improve access to patients and offer greater choice. There are also plans to recruit more consultants.

And Mr Armstrong said the Health Department would also be reviewing financial access to the service, which provides lower-level infertility treatment to Islanders for free. However, higher-level treatment, in particular IVF, must be paid for.

Currently, only those with a combined household income of less than £34,000 get any financial help with IVF. Other patients under the age of 40 have their drugs paid for by the government but pick up the bill for the actual treatment – which runs to thousands of pounds per cycle – themselves.

Mr Armstrong has moved to reassure people of the situation following concerns raised by St Martin Constable Karen Shenton-Stone, who helped to set up the ARU in 2000, that services could be cut or the unit shut down altogether.

She also called for a community-wide conversation about infertility in the hope of reducing the stigma associated with it. Last year, 5.2% of babies born in Jersey followed pregnancies that involved the ARU in some way.

Mr Armstrong said he hoped to engage patients in the redesign to ensure they get the kind of service they need and want.

‘We would like to understand more about what the service should be, what works and what doesn’t work – it is an opportunity to look at everything,’ he said.

‘But what I would say is we are absolutely committed to providing the infertility service. We have absolutely no intention of running the infertility service down. Personally, I have been working very closely with the obstetrics and gynaecology team to build up on their services to make those services better and infertility is just part of that.’

He added that the plan was for a smooth transition without interruptions in service.

‘We really do genuinely want to engage with Islanders around this service, and I personally would like to get involved in that conversation. The World Health Organisation view it as a human right. We have to think about that and it is an opportunity to look at access to the services. Currently, the household income [for IVF] is set at such a level that really it is not accessible. I think this is an opportunity to look at that to see if we can make the service more accessible.

‘I feel strongly that your right to be able to use this type of service should not be based on your ability to pay. Obviously, somebody has to pay, and that is the taxpayer. Moving forward, whatever services we want to expand or new services we want to introduce, ultimately it is something Islanders should decide – that is why we need that engagement.’

ARU has now moved from its purpose-built home on the Hospital’s Rayner Ward to Overdale – a move Mr Armstrong said was designed to ensure resilience due to the ongoing Covid situation. He described the hospital as a ‘warm or hot’ Covid zone which could always potentially have patients with the virus in, whereas Overdale is ‘cold’, meaning the unit would not necessarily need to close should there be a second wave of cases.

Mr Armstrong said Mr MacLachlan had given his notice to the department in November and had been due to retire from both public and private work in March. However, he has agreed to stay on until 2021 while the service is redesigned.

He will continue to see private patients and the small number of public ones who qualify for financial help for IVF and high-level infertility treatment until then.

The lower-level treatments will be run by three existing consultants.

‘We will be looking to employ more consultants moving forward,’ Mr Armstrong said, adding that they hoped to employ someone to lead the service and develop it into the future.

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