Dear Colleague

Responsible use of websites: the duty of centres

The internet plays an increasing role in the lives we lead. This letter is about the use that centres make of their websites.

It is entirely understandable that centres are developing their websites as channels that patients can use to acquire information about services, performance and costs. The Authority itself has, as you know, put considerable time and expertise into improving its own website as the authoritative source of accessible and reliable information about licensed activities.

As patients make greater use of centres’ websites so the responsibility centres have to ensure the information they contain is fair and accurate becomes increasingly important.

As Alan Doran announced in Dublin earlier this year, we have had concerns about how accurate, fair and informative some centres’ websites are in practice. Some centres have raised with us these concerns; patients have done so and external commentators have also voiced disquiet – most recently, Lord Winston touched upon this in the House of Lords debate about our inclusion in the Public bodies Bill.

At present, there is no explicit advice about centres’ websites in guidance or Directions – though there is categorical advice about the duty of centres to provide patients with well-grounded information about their treatment.

The Authority takes the view that – before considering whether to resort to such regulatory approaches – it is better to give centres themselves the opportunity to ‘self-regulate’. This letter describes what we expect centres to do.

Advertising Standards Authority

On 1 March 2011, the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) online remit was extended to cover marketing communications on organisations’ own websites and in other non-paid-for space under their control (including social networking sites).

The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (the CAP Code) now applies in full to marketing messages online, including the rules relating to misleading advertising, social responsibility and the protection of children. It covers:

  • UK advertisers’ own marketing messages on their own websites, regardless of sector, type of businesses or size of organisation; 
  • Marketing communications in other non-paid-for space under the advertiser’s control, such as social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

These wide-ranging rules are designed to ensure that advertising does not mislead, harm or offend. Advertisements must be socially responsible and prepared in line with the principles of fair competition. These broad principles apply regardless of the product being advertised.

The Authority expects PRs to ensure that their centre’s website does not breach the requirements of the Code. In particular, the inclusion of data about success rates that does not point to their limitations or relies on partial and selective relating to small numbers of patients could well be ‘misleading’ in the terms of the ASA Code ( .

Monitoring of centres’ websites

PRs have a personal responsibility to ensure that information provided on their centre’s website is compliant with the requirements of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990 (as amended), relevant Licence Conditions and guidance in guidance note 4 of the HFEA Code of Practice (8th Edition).

Information provided on centre websites will be reviewed for compliance as part of preparation for licence renewal inspections. In particular we will be looking at your websites and, where applicable, the websites of the satellite and transport centres associated with your centre to ensure the following:

  • The data are less than three years old. 
  • The live birth rate per treatment cycle is provided .The website should not highlight a high success rate which applies only to a small, selected group of patients. 
  • The data are broken down by maternal age, and if appropriate, the treatment type. 
  • The website provides raw numbers, rather than just percentages (this would particularly apply to centres doing, for example, fewer than 50 cycles). 
  • The website provides the national rate and like for like comparisons (the same year, maternal age, treatment type, etc.). 
  • The centre’s published success rates data make reference to the HFEA as the source of national information. 
  • The website must state clearly that success rates have limitations as the basis for comparison or personal choice; centres should include a link to the HFEA’s advice on success rates: 
  • Where the website refers to comparative costs, it should indicate what the likely, overall cost for a typical cycle would be, based on actual costs for recent patients, not individual items in tariffs.

The Authority’s view is that centres can themselves do a lot to improve the reliability and accuracy of the information they offer patients by means of their website. We will review this again in the Autumn to see whether we need to take a more direct interventionist approach. Our hope is that that will be unnecessary.

Yours sincerely

Lisa Jardine CBE


Page last updated: 17 August 2012