ALMOST six months ago this newspaper revealed that Jersey’s Assisted Reproduction Unit was to undergo major change pending the retirement of its consultant, Neil MacLachlan.
There were concerns raised that health bosses were trying to shut down the service altogether, but the Health Department moved to reassure people that this was not the case and said that the redesign would in fact improve access to patients and offer greater choice.
Medical director Patrick Armstrong said there were plans to recruit more consultants and even to review 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.
And, the plan, Mr Armstrong added, was for no interruptions to the service and for a smooth transition to the new system by January.
Fast forward six months, and here we are in January.
As yet there has been no announcement about the future of the service and no indication of what patients can expect moving forward.
Instead, some patients who want to start high-level treatment in the next couple of months are in a frustrating state of limbo, some of them not even knowing if they will be able to have their treatment or not.
Lower-level treatment has, I believe, been continuing, as had higher-level services between September and December. And there have been some developments behind the scenes. I was part of a patient group which met Health representatives in November to share our feedback, thoughts and ideas ahead of the redesign.
Covid and Christmas holidays will have caused some delays to the project, of course, but things are getting urgent now.
And we simply cannot afford to let already vulnerable couples and patients down. Most are already anxious and stressed, having waited years to reach this stage in their infertility journey and having experienced a delay of many months when the service shut down during lockdown and for months afterwards (despite UK clinics having quickly reopened).
Think about what further delays may mean for those who have been told that time is not on their side and that with every month that passes their chances of conceiving, even with the help of some of the greatest science on the planet, is reducing. Some of those people have lost almost a year already thanks to Covid and delays in reopening the Jersey ARU.
They deserve some answers.
Of course, it is important to get this redesign right, and some will say that such a project cannot be rushed. But Health had been given a long period of notice by Mr MacLachlan that he was going to retire. He then agreed to stay on until 2021 while the service was redesigned.
This is the same consultant who just last week was made an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List for his services to the community as a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist.
If you have never been helped by him personally, it is likely that you will know someone – or many people, actually – who have.
He said in an interview with this newspaper following that honour announcement that helping people start or grow their families had been the best bit about his career.
As well as helping those struggling to have children to conceive, and giving hope to those still trying, he has delivered countless babies over the years – many in emergency situations – and kept mothers and their little ones safe time and time again. He has even helped Jersey Zoo’s orangutans have babies.
During a career spanning more than three decades in Jersey, Mr MacLachlan has left a lasting impact on our community which words simply cannot do justice.
Any redesigned ARU service has this reputation to live up to, which is a big ask but it should also serve as inspirational motivation.
And you’d hope that Health bosses are using his extensive experience, knowledge and contacts to help them with the redesign before he does finally get to retire. You’d like to think this would be the case.
So what next? Well, some progress would be nice – for all concerned. Patients – who we must remember are at increased risk of mental-health problems due to infertility – need clarity about what is happening next and reassurance that they will be looked after.
New patients need quick and easy access to the service too.
And Jersey’s ARU must be kept open without any service interruptions at all levels.
Anything less and our Health Department will be failing Islanders.