Conflicting expert opinions – how do I know who’s right?

So, you finally plucked up the courage to go for a second opinion (see also When and how should I seek a second opinion?) and guess what – now you have two or more well-qualified and plausible experts with compelling arguments telling you to do the exact opposite. Maybe one cites empirical research and another doesn’t; maybe they all cite different research. Maybe one sides with the ‘mainstream’ while the others are mavericks – who’s more credible? Who should you trust?

Here’s a classic example encountered by women in their late 30s and 40s with elevated FSH or low AMH (which means they have diminished ovarian reserve – very few eggs left, on the fast track to early menopause). [This example may not relate to your case specifically, but the reflections about how to deal with it are definitely generalisable.]

Specialist A: Once your Day 2/3 FSH is over [insert cut-off; some say 10, some say 12, some say 15, some say 20] the odds of pregnancy through IVF are so incredibly low that IVF is a waste of time altogether, so we would actually not treat you unless you plan to use donor eggs. Just move on already!

Specialist B: Your FSH is elevated, which means you will be a poor responder to stims (Gonal F, etc) and your odds will be lower than other patients your age. It’s like your ovaries are old and going deaf, so we have to give you a very high dose of stims (i.e. ‘shout’ at your ovaries) to get them to wake up and produce any eggs at all. So, I would recommend we put you on maximum dose stims and see what happens. If that doesn’t work we will try mega mega doses.

Specialist C: Your FSH is elevated, you will be a poor responder, but actually, large doses of stims for women like you will often cause your ovaries to shut down and not respond at all. If they do respond, the dose is so high that you will end up with fried eggs that are unlikely to result in a live birth anyway. No, your ovaries are like an old squeaky violin that has to be coaxed gently into life so that it sings the sweetest tune  it possibly can. I recommend a very low-stim IVF, IUI or TI (timed intercourse) cycle with either very low stims right from the start, or just starting with no stims and letting your own [already elevated] FSH drive follicle growth before adding a ‘tiny boost’ to help things on their way.

Yes, intelligent people do hold different views. The field is still growing and not everything is cut-and-dried (and  actually, never will be). They all have theory and evidence to back their explanations …

Specialist A will cite a ton of empirical research showing the inverse correlation between FSH levels and IVF response (number of eggs produced) and success rates. No argument with that.

Specialist B will cite studies showing that the higher the dose, the more eggs patients produce, and the more eggs you retrieve the higher the success rates. It’s a numbers game.

Specialist C will say ah yes, but what those studies don’t show (but mine do) is that, although you get more eggs from higher stims, in older women and those with high FSH, those eggs are of lower quality, less likely to fertilise, and most importantly, less likely to result in live births.

They are all speaking the truth based on what they have seen and read; they all have evidence and experience to back their claims. So, how do we weigh up conflicting arguments and figure out what makes the most sense for us?

First, let’s talk about the big studies (either randomised experimental trials or retrospective studies) showing that Protocol X works (or, helps) better than protocol Y. These are very important to understand, but what YOU need to consider is not “does it help” on AVERAGE across a large study of all sorts of different women; the real question to have in mind when you read (or, discuss with your dr) such research is WHOM does it help (what age, dx, individual characteristics), and under what conditions? And, will it help ME with my unique constellation of age, treatment history, diagnosis and other characteristics?

There are some aspects of fertility treatment that are so nuanced, unpredictable and idiosyncratic that the reality is NO-ONE is ever going to get “the” answer through large study research. Once you’re past the relatively well-established big picture stuff and trying to individualise protocols based on what you see and what you’ve seen in the past, it’s less about big picture science and hypothesis testing and more about human judgement and pattern recognition.

When we’re in this territory, fertility treatment is less a “science” and more of an “art” or a “craft”. You’re having to trust pattern recognition, judgement, intuition and instincts because the research just isn’t there to the level of detail you’d need to be able to make a call. Also, many of the cutting-edge treatments have no more than a plausible theory and a few success cases; the research needed to fully test them is still in progress or may be years away or may never be done because they help such a small segment of the ttc population – but they may still help (see also New and “untested” treatments). Just about all of my ttc journey was in that murky domain -  I was too specific a mix of age, diagnosis and treatment history for enough large studies to have been conducted to clearly indicate what would work in my case. There were no easy answers – there wasn’t a clear right or wrong because the research out there could only predict what would happen across a large group (that included many women NOT like me), not what would happen in MY case (or cases very similar to mine).

When you’re in instinct and judgement and pattern-recognition territory, the only things you can do are arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can muster, listen to the instincts and judgement of the people who have had more experience with cases specifically like your own, and listen to your own instincts and debate these back and forth with your specialist(s). It’s a crap-shoot, but some people have a knack for this stuff …

Or, the simple version for the example above (please just insert your own dilemma and the answer is likely the same): high stims work for some people; low stims work better for others. Which are you? Well, you won’t know until you try because the studies have been done on a huge range of women, only a fraction of whom are like you in various ways – and none of them are exactly like you. So, research like crazy to try and figure out what seems promising for women and couples most like you, and when it’s still not clear how to choose among various plausible options on your shortlist, go with your gut.

See also: New and “untested” treatments for some thoughts about which new-fangled ideas to consider seriously.

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