Before New Jersey mom Amanda Crosby made the decision last year to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) at a fertility clinic, she did a lot of what she calls "website window shopping" to help make up her mind between a big fertility clinic located in a nearby city or a smaller practice closer to home.
"I did a ton of research, not only looking at the websites of the two clinics I was trying to decide between," explains Crosby, "but also browsing the sites of fertility clinics in other states to see how someplace in, let's say, Boston, stacked up to the ones near me."
What did she find? Lots of pictures of really cute babies and inspiring client testimonials, but very little about how much she would have to pay up front. That kind of information, she says, took in-person visits at both clinics to uncover.
More recently, Jim Hawkins, an assistant professor of law at the University of Houston, led an experiment similar to Crosby's. This time, however, instead of looking at a handful of fertility clinic websites, Hawkins and his colleagues examined websites from 372 fertility clinics in the United States registered with the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART), an affiliate of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine that represents more than 85 percent of fertility clinics in the US.
Just like Crosby, Hawkins found plenty of smiling babies, happy couples, and lots of positive language. According to his 30-page report, nearly 80 percent of the clinics' websites had photos of babies on their homepage. Additionally, 30 percent of sites used the word "dream" and nearly 9 percent used the word "miracle."
Hawkins is concerned that these types of images and wording may give false hope to infertile couples, especially in light of what a large number of clinic websites leave out: information about success rates and treatment costs.
In his research, Hawkins found that only 56 percent of clinic websites posted their success rates on their "Home" or "About" pages. When clinics did post success rate comparisons, 19 percent failed to include the "may not be meaningful" tagline that SART requires of its members (this is included because comparing success rates between clinics is difficult due to differing techniques).
Only 55 percent of websites made any mention of price. As Hawkins explains in a press statement, "The fact that clinics do not list prices really increases the costs people face when they search for the best clinic. Patients have to call the clinics or even visit to get pricing information... it makes price comparisons very difficult."
Something else Hawkins didn't find: diversity. Approximately 97 percent of the websites that contain pictures of babies have pictures of white babies, and "62.93 percent have pictures of only white babies," says Hawkins.
Why does all this matter? Infertility is big business in the US. As the Huffington Post reports, fertility services now gross more than $4 billion annually in the US alone. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 percent of babies born in the US each year are conceived via some form of assisted reproduction.
Hawkins believes the time has come for more regulation when it comes to how clinics represent themselves on the web, which is often the first stop for an infertile couple trying to investigate their treatment options.
"I hope the research will encourage legislators to take a closer look at this industry, because the industry's attempts to regulate itself have not been successful," he concludes.
But Sean Tipton, director of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, disagrees with this assessment. As he tells Huffington Post, "In their anxiousness to find fault... the authors seem to ignore the fact that every physician who performs an IVF cycle in this country must report that fact, and its outcome, to the federal government... I don't think patients have much trouble finding information about IVF success rates."
Tipton is referring to the CDC's annual report card of fertility specialist success rates, which is available online.
As for Crosby, who recently gave birth after successful IVF, she thinks it's all a matter of perspective.
"Looking back at the websites now, I don't think the clinics were giving me false hope. I wanted hope—desperately! It's what got me to call to in the first place," she says. "Besides, there is so much testing and so many meetings that take place before anything happens. Even if the clinic's website is super-slick, my fertility doctor is anything but. I guess the bottom line is, don't judge your fertility options but what a web designer thinks!"