BRCA is a hot news item these days. The SCOTUS ruling on the Myriad patent. Angeline Jolie writing in the New York Times about her experience with BRCA testing. A movie about BRCA testing starring Helen Hunt as Mary-Claire King (Hey,when they make the movie about me, they will have to get Clooney or Depp for the lead). But BRCA testing has been around for about 15 years and I have met with thousands of patients who have gone through the decision-making process about genetic testing. For some the choice was a snap; for others it was a difficult, soul-searching affair. I eventually realized the obvious – nobody undergoes BRCA testing until they are emotionally ready.
Public lectures, brochures, ad campaigns, podcasts, TV commercials, advertisements, physician referrals, and word of mouth all increase awareness of BRCA testing but they do not necessarily drive people to actually meet with a genetic counselor or to undergo testing. When reviewing medical records prior to a patient’s appointment, I frequently see the notation “Recommended that the patient see Bob Resta for BRCA testing” repeated multiple times over the years by different providers – radiologists, family practitioners, gynecologists, etc. Patients often need a trigger to make the appointment phone call. A cancer diagnosis pushes some patients to testing to help guide their treatment decisions, which, from a preventative public health stand point, is a significant systems failure. Many patients, particularly those who have not yet been diagnosed with cancer, need an emotional trigger – a friend diagnosed with cancer, reaching the age when a parent was diagnosed with cancer, coming to grips with the responsibilities of parenthood, or an experience that causes them to acknowledge their mortality.
These triggers have resulted in a more or less steadily increasing flow of referrals, with occasional rises and dips that follows a pattern that is no more transparent to me than the whimsical ups and downs of the stock market. But overall cancer genetic counseling and testing is still underutilized.
And then came Angelina Jolie.
I am guessing that most cancer genetics programs were swamped with a tsunami of referrals after May 14th. Rumor has it that some genetic counselors have taken to saying that the AJ Panel now stands for Angelina Jolie Panel, not Ashkenazi Jewish Panel (well, not really, I just made that up, but it could be true). At my institution, I roll my own; I am the only genetic counselor in our hereditary cancer program, so the leap in patient volume has been particularly acute for me.
Initially I thought I was just a cranky old counselor complaining about a couple of busy days. But then I compared my patient load in the 4 weeks before Angelina Jolie’s New York Times piece on May 14th to the 4 weeks after. I grant you this is not exactly a scientific methodology, and I can think of all kinds of faults in the study design. But it probably provides a reasonable approximation of reality.
In the 4 weeks before May 14th, I met with 54 patients, almost all of whom were new patients, a typical volume for me. Twenty of those 54 visits (37%) were by patients who had a family history of cancer, rather than having been diagnosed with cancer. 35 patients underwent BRCA testing.
In comparison, in the 4 weeks after May 14th, there have been 90 clinic visits, a 66% increase compared to the prior 4 weeks. 58 patients underwent BRCA testing, also a 66% increase. It was not due to mini-epidemic of breast cancer in my neck of the woods (although Seattle has the highest incidence of breast cancer in the country) – 52 of those 90 visits (58%) were by healthy patients who had a family history of cancer.
Perhaps this bump in my workload was a seasonal thing as people clear off their to-do lists before summer vacation, but I did not find similar patterns in April/May/June of 2011 or 2012. In fact, in 30 years of practice, I do not believe that my patient volume has ever risen so rapidly so quickly. It is fair to say this increase is largely due to Ms. Jolie’s revelation. Presumably this will eventually taper off. But I already have 20 patients on my schedule for the coming week.
I usually ask patients what motivated them to come in for genetic counseling at this particular time in their lives. A few patients have admitted that Ms. Jolie was their impetus for seeking genetic counseling. But most were quick to say – sometimes without prompt – “I am not here because of Angelina Jolie. I just decided it was the right time to come in.” That may be true for some, but I suspect that downplaying the Angelina Jolie angle may reflect a bit of embarrassed denial on the part of others. All of us are influenced by influential people, which is why we call them influential. Influence, however, can be so subtly pervasive that we cannot detect its fingerprints. Just ask Don Draper.
I am not critical of Angelina Jolie’s decision to share her story. No matter how famous you are, it has to be difficult to share such an intensely personal narrative with just about every human being on earth. And her actions may very well help save lives and reduce suffering, which is what we are trying to do in medical care. To many of us, though, it seems paradoxically odd but not surprising that a movie star can play such a critical role in people’s lives. She is not a health care expert; she doesn’t even play a doctor on TV.
But as I have argued before, genetic counselors have less influence on patients than we like to believe. Medical decisions and healthcare utilization are shaped by a complex web of emotional, social, cultural, and psychological factors, many of which people are not willing to acknowledge or are even cognizant of, and which are beyond the control of genetic counselors.
If we want to better integrate genetic counseling into standard medical care, we need to move beyond a model of Healthcare Provider Education and Referral Pamphlets Are The Best Way To Get People Into Our Offices. We need to take a page from DTC genetic companies’ playbooks and make it less of a hassle for patients to utilize genetic counseling and testing. We need to tap into social psychology and tease out the factors that lead patient’s from their front doors to our office doors. The future of the genetic counseling profession depends on it.