STUDY QUESTION: Can we replicate the finding that the benefit of IUI-ovarian stimulation (IUI-OS) compared to expectant management for couples with unexplained subfertility depends on the prognosis of natural conception?
SUMMARY ANSWER: The estimated benefit of IUI-OS did not depend on the prognosis of natural conception but did depend on when treatment was started after diagnosis, with starting IUI-OS later yielding a larger absolute and relative benefit of treatment.
WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: IUI-OS is often the first-line treatment for couples with unexplained subfertility. Two randomized controlled trials (RCTs) compared IUI-OS to expectant management using different thresholds for the prognosis of natural conception as inclusion criteria and found different results. In a previous study (a Dutch national cohort), it was found that the benefit of IUI-OS compared to expectant management seemed dependent on the prognosis of natural conception, but this finding warrants replication.
STUDY DESIGN SIZE DURATION: We conducted a secondary analysis of the H2Oil study (n = 1119), a multicentre RCT that evaluated the effect of oil-based contrast versus water-based contrast during hysterosalpingography (HSG). Couples were randomized before HSG and followed up for 3-5 years. We selected couples with unexplained subfertility who received HSG and had follow-up or pregnancy data available. Follow-up was censored at the start of IVF, after the last IUI cycle or at last contact and was truncated at a maximum of 18 months after the fertility workup.
PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS SETTING METHODS: The endpoint was time to conception leading to an ongoing pregnancy. We used the sequential Cox approach comparing in each month the ongoing pregnancy rates over the next 6 months of couples who started IUI-OS to couples who did not. We calculated the prognosis of natural conception for individual couples, updated this over consecutive failed cycles and evaluated whether prognosis modified the effect of starting IUI-OS. We corrected for known predictors of conception using inverse probability weighting.
MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: Data from 975 couples were available. There were 587 couples who received at least one IUI-OS cycle within 18 months after HSG of whom 221 conceived leading to an ongoing pregnancy (rate: 0.74 per couple per year over a median follow-up for IUI of 5 months). The median period between HSG and starting IUI-OS was 4 months. Out of 388 untreated couples, 299 conceived naturally (rate: 0.56 per couple per year over a median follow-up of 4 months). After creating our mimicked trial datasets, starting IUI-OS was associated with a higher chance of ongoing pregnancy by a pooled, overall hazard ratio of 1.50 (95% CI: 1.19-1.89) compared to expectant management. We did not find strong evidence that the effect of treatment was modified by a couple's prognosis of achieving natural conception (Akaike's Information Criterion (AIC) decreased by 1 point). The effect of treatment was dependent on when couples started IUI-OS (AIC decreased by more than 2 points). The patterns of estimated absolute chances over time for couples with increasingly better prognoses were different from the previous study but the finding that starting later yields a larger benefit of treatment was similar. We found IUI-OS increased the absolute chance of pregnancy by at least 5% compared to expectant management. The absolute chance of pregnancy after IUI-OS seems less variable between couples and starting times of treatment than the absolute chance after expectant management.
LIMITATIONS REASONS FOR CAUTION: This is a secondary analysis, as the H2Oil trial was not designed with this research question in mind. Owing to sample size restrictions, it remained difficult to distinguish between the ranges of prognoses in which true benefit was found.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: We replicated the finding that starting IUI-OS later after diagnosis yields a larger absolute and relative benefit of treatment. We did not replicate the dependency of the effect of IUI-OS on the prognosis of natural conception and could not identify clear thresholds for the prognosis of natural conception when IUI-OS was and/or was not effective. Because many of these couples still have good chances of natural conception at the time of diagnosis, we suggest clinicians should advise couples to delay the start of IUI-OS for several months to avoid unnecessary treatment.
STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTERESTS: The H2Oil study (NTR 3270) was an investigator-initiated study that was funded by the two academic institutions (AMC and VUmc) of the Amsterdam UMC. The follow-up study (NTR 6577) was also an investigator-initiated study with funding by Guerbet, France. The funders had no role in study design, collection, analysis and interpretation of the data. B.W.M. is supported by an Investigator grant (GNT1176437) from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). K.D. reports receiving travel and speaker fees from Guerbet. B.W.M. reports consultancy for ObsEva, Merck, Merck KGaA, iGenomix and Guerbet. V.M. reports receiving travel- and speaker fees as well as research grants from Guerbet.