An offer too good to be true? Might be a kickback.

Consider this imaginary scenario from three perspectives:

#1 You are an administrator for a large healthcare system in your community that is facing a greater demand for mental health services than ever before. Qualified mental healthcare providers are in high demand leading to psychiatrists and counselors demanding higher wages; yet reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid haven’t kept up.

A well-known pharmaceutical company approaches you with a new program which includes a computer program that will interface directly with the healthcare system’s electronic medical record. This program has a suite of tools that will provide patient education, screen patients for depression and other mental health concerns and can make recommendations for treatment based on chatbots and pre-programmed algorithms. The program also allows for ease of ordering and delivery of medications, directly to the patients that are identified as possibly benefiting them. The system will check insurance benefits, handle billing, and provide education to the patient making the whole process seamless and burden-free for your clinical staff and providers. And the pharmaceutical company will provide direct access to mental health counselors and psychiatrists to take care of your patients when there are needs beyond what the chatbot and videos can provide. This is all offered to your healthcare system free of charge. This is a departure from how mental health services have been offered previously within in your healthcare system, however you are convinced that this program it would increase access to care that is desperately needed and greatly benefit your budget as well.  

#2 You are a psychiatrist that has worked in a community health practice for many years. The work is taxing and not well supported. When you were recruited by a pharmaceutical company it felt like an easy choice. The pay that was offered was nearly double what you were paid when working for community health and the perks, benefits and hours allow for a much-improved work-life balance. And with so many tools for efficiency and support, you believed that more patients would be reached in the system through access to medications than you could have ever reached through traditional clinical care.

#3 You work in business development for a pharmaceutical company. Integrating into healthcare systems with tools to boost clinic efficiency and support health care providers like free electronic mental health screening questionnaires and algorithms for treatment recommendations means that more patients will be reached, and more prescriptions will be sold. Direct access to patient information input into company tools, such as the questionnaires, as well as control over the tools and their internal algorithms mean that the company can engineer the tools to make recommendations for prescribers that will garner the highest payment from insurance payers. This direct access is solid gold in the pharmaceutical business. The salaries of psychiatrists and mental health professionals are easily paid for by a fraction of the increased revenues in prescription sales. And the opportunity to have psychiatrists and mental health counselors on the pharmaceutical company staff, to interact directly with healthcare system providers and staff as well as patients has shown to be a powerful sales tool that gives healthcare systems the confidence to utilize the company’s platform.

Could this scenario happen? If so, is there a problem with it?

Let’s first consider the positives:

  • Improved patient access for a needed service.
  • Earning potential for expert healthcare providers.
  • Pharmaceutical company is making a healthy profit (as a successful business should)

And the negatives?

  • The pharmaceutical company is essentially monopolizing prescribing for the healthcare system.
  • In the interest of profits, the pharmaceutical company is incentivized to influence prescribing to maximize reimbursement.
  • Excessive prescribing practices may result, that are not necessarily in the best interest of the patient and may incur great costs for the payers and broader health system.
  • The healthcare system is allowing sensitive patient information to be shared with the pharmaceutical company which may also raise patient privacy and data sharing concerns.

Such a scenario is ethically murky and likely would be problematic given state and federal anti-kickback statutes. While patient access to services may be increased, there is a risk that the profit interests of the pharmaceutical company would be prioritized over the best interests of the patients and the healthcare system.

The anti-kickback laws are intent-based, criminal statutes that prohibit intentional remuneration, whether monetary or in-kind, in exchange for referrals or other Federally funded health care program business.

From the Office of the Inspector General (OIG): The types of remuneration covered specifically include, without limitation, kickbacks, bribes, and rebates, whether made directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, in cash or in kind. In addition, prohibited conduct includes not only the payment of remuneration intended to induce or reward referrals of patients but also the payment of remuneration intended to induce or reward the purchasing, leasing, or ordering of, or arranging for or recommending the purchasing, leasing, or ordering of, any good, facility, service, or item reimbursable by any Federal health care program.

Further the OIG  states that remuneration to encourage referrals in health care can lead to:

  • Overutilization
  • Increased program costs
  • Corruption of medical decision making
  • Patient steering
  • Unfair competition

The above imaginary scenario could be especially problematic given the involvement of healthcare providers, psychiatrists and mental health counselors. The practice of using physicians or other health care professionals involved in direct marketing activities has been termed, “white coat” marketing. See OIG Advisory Opinion No. 11-08: “White coat marketing is closely scrutinized under the anti-kickback statute because physicians and other healthcare professionals are in an exceptional position of public trust and thus may exert undue influence when recommending health care-related items or services…Given the nature of these relationships, when physicians or other health care professionals market items and services to their patients, patients may have difficulty distinguishing between professional medical advice and a commercial sales pitch.”

How does this connect to genetic counseling?

Currently, throughout the United States, genetic testing laboratories are approaching physician clinics, hospitals, and healthcare systems with proposals to help streamline genetic services. These laboratories promise a bi-directional interface with the local EMR to ease test ordering and reporting. They provide screening tools to identify patients who meet clinical guidelines for genetic testing and videos to provide information to support pretest consent. They provide insurance authorization and billing follow-up. And they provide genetic counseling support to patients who use their tests. Furthermore, the labs are often making big claims about the potential for downstream revenue that could be generated from more genetic testing in the system in terms of imaging, risk reducing surgeries, procedures, etc. that may be recommended once high-risk patients are identified.

Could any of these complementary services, in exchange for genetic test orders, be considered an illegal kickback or remuneration? Could the complementary genetic counseling services provided to patients be considered “white-coat” marketing? 

The answer to that question may depend on if there can be a monetary value assigned to provision of genetic counseling services. And, since genetic counselors aren’t recognized under federal CMS as reimbursable, it is possible that there is no clear assignable value for genetic counseling services that would be considered a remuneration by CMS.     

Genetic counselors are often leaving clinical positions for higher paying positions with industry, and healthcare organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their own locally hired staff. This taken with the fact that healthcare systems have difficulty getting reimbursed for independent genetic counselors who are on staff with their organization, offers of complementary lab-provided genetic counseling bundled up with ease in test ordering are appealing. Labs see marketing by genetic counselors as a powerful sales tool to increase genetic test orders and offer genetic counselors attractive positions in terms of pay and other benefits. And then labs make deals with hospitals, clinics, and healthcare organizations to offer full service genetic healthcare solutions by labs that want to be the one stop shop. With companies that have an interest in selling more and more tests, and healthcare systems having a hard time retaining genetic counselors or getting reimbursed for their services, we will likely see automated processes constructed by the labs to make recommendations about test orders.

I believe genetic counselors can offer excellent services regardless of who employs them. I know that many lab-employed genetic counselors are working hard and taking great care of their patients. And I believe that the tools that the companies provide do have the potential to expand access to genetic testing. What worries me though is that this expansion of testing may not ultimately be what is best for patients and will cost the healthcare system (and thus all of us) greatly. As this landscape continue to shift, with genetic counseling being offered as an incentive to promote test orders of specific test brands, the practice of independent genetic counseling services as we have known them may soon vanish. Our ability to provide unbiased counseling that allows patients to make informed choices about what is best for them (which may not always be a genetic test) and our ability to select that best test, regardless of testing laboratory, will be a thing of the past.

Legislation has been introduced that would allow for genetic counselors to be reimbursed by Medicare, Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act of 2021 H.R. 2144 and S.1450. Medicare recognition of the genetic counseling profession is crucial to ensuring access to independent services. Please consider contacting your representatives and senators to voice your support of these important bills. Learn more here.

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The American Plan: The Incarceration and Forced Treatment of “Good Time Girls”

 this poster features an apparently average and conservatively dressed woman who might also pose a threat. Featured in the poster is the warning to all servicemen that 'She May Look Clean–But pick-ups, 'good-time girls' and prostitutes spread syphilis and gonorrhea. Publisher information at bottom of poster.

 

Every girl under supervision, we know where she works, who her friends are, and how she puts in her time….While the girls are in the hospital, we grade her mentally, and make a detailed social investigation… Her mental grading helps us in determining what she can do… We are locking up just as many feeble-minded girls as we can.  – Katharine Ostrander, Michigan State Board of Health, Director of Social Services (1919)

I recently became aware of a little known chapter in 20th century American history known as The American Plan, a chapter so creepy it could have been written by Margaret Atwood. While it is not directly connected to genetic counseling, the usual focus of this blog, as you will see it does intersect with eugenics. I feel it is shocking enough that it should be brought to the attention of the blog’s Good Readers; I suspect that many will be as stunned and surprised as I was. Most of what I have to say is drawn from Scott W. Stern’s 2018 book The Trials of Nina McCall – Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Plan To Imprison “Promiscuous” Women. Please note that in the posting I am using the  historical vocabulary of that time period to capture the zeitgeist of America in the first part of the 20th century.

The US entry into the First World War resulted in the drafting of nearly 3 million men into the military. Draftees were administered, among other things, an IQ test and a physical exam for social diseases, as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were euphemistically labeled at the time (even the US Surgeon General was not allowed to say “syphilis” on a radio broadcast). The results were alarming – a substantial number of draftees had a very low IQ and a high incidence of social diseases. We looked like a nation whose men were sex-crazed morons (“moron” was a supposedly objective scientific category based on low IQ score). Perhaps many readers are thinking “Well, yeah, men haven’t changed much in the last 100 years”.

The Enemy in Your Pants – Mother Jones

Military and political leaders were concerned that the US fighting force would be defeated by its own diseases. To combat social disease the US government enacted The American Plan, based on similar plans from European countries. Some readers may be familiar with the cheesy posters warning soldiers in both World Wars of the dangers of venereal diseases but these smile-inducing graphics belie a dark side to some of the strategies employed by The American Plan. In an attempt to “protect” the troops from syphilis and the like, a range of laws and policies on the federal, state, and local levels were enacted that gave authorities and even some civilian entities almost blanket permission to arrest, isolate, examine, treat, and reform anyone suspected of spreading social diseases. Although the initial focus was intended to be communities near military camps, it soon spread to many towns and cities throughout the country, regardless of their proximity to military facilities. Every state and hundreds of cities and towns passed nearly identical versions of American Plan laws.

Multicolor poster with white lettering, depicting a woman standing outside a bar or dance hall. The woman has blond hair and wears a short-sleeved steel blue dress, pink bracelet, and blue ring. She has a dark red purse tucked between her arm and body, freeing up her hands to hold matches and light the cigarette dangling from her mouth. Her attractive features are hardened by her eyebrows coming together, as in anger, and a slight snarl on her lips. Initial title words at top of poster, remainder overlap woman's midsection. Artist's name in lower right corner. VDgraphic-25 appears in lower left corner.

Essentially, any woman suspected – not convicted – of being a prostitute, engaging in “promiscuous behavior,” premarital sex, or other “suspicious behavior” could be forced to undergo an invasive pelvic exam, almost always by a male physician. If the physician decided that the the person had evidence of a a social disease, they could be confined to an institution – a jail, a hospital, a “reformatory,” depending on local conditions. Whatever building or camp was used, the women were incarcerated, plain and simple. Once incarcertated they were forced to undergo largely ineffective, painful, and toxic treatments with a mercury- or arsenic-based regimen. This even though diagnosis was rarely definitive unless the person had flagrant disease; indeed, some women were diagnosed as being “slightly infected,” whatever that means. For good measure, many were also given IQ tests, and if they scored low enough they could be forced to undergo sterilization under some state eugenic laws. There was also a profit motive to incarcerating women; the Federal Government provided money to the states, and states passed the funds on to local authorities, with the amount depending on how many women were detained. 

 

Beware of Chance Acquaintances, American Society for Social Hygiene VD  Poster | David Pollack Vintage Posters

The policy was not limited to brothels and known prostitutes, who in fact usually had a low incidence of social diseases. Women of any age were forced into the program, including young teens and even pre-teens. It is astounding what could be labeled as a “suspicious behavior.” One woman was detained because a vengeful former boss reported her as sexually suspect after she quit her job. Another was detained after she volunteered as a witness to a car theft. Another was detained because she was on a date with a man who was drinking alcohol. Think about this. A woman might be flirting with a couple of guys in a dance hall or soda shop or go out for a drink on her own, or just be walking down the street in Anytown, USA in a “suspicious” manner and she could be forced to undergo a painful pelvic exam by a physician, confined to a treatment center for an indefinite period based on faulty testing and disease criteria, and then made to endure painful, debilitating and largely ineffective treatment until such time that the authorities had decided that she was cured and socially reformed. These incarcerations helped shape the modern American women’s carceral system, which currently has nearly a quarter million women within its walls.

Retro WW II Loose Women Loaded With VD Venereal Disease 45 Auto World War  Poster | eBay

It was felt that if women were reformed they would not return to their former loose life styles. Reform usually meant making them clean, cook, sew, and perform other activities – mostly to maintain the institutions where they were being incarcerated – that were thought be be appropriate for proper women. Authorities had the power to hold the women for days, weeks, or months until such time as it was decided that they were deemed medically and socially fit to re-enter society. Even after release, women could be required to check in with institutional directors for permission if they wanted to move, get a job, or even to get married. Some directors asked employers to monitor released inmates’ behavior and report suspected relapses.

The American Plan continued to be actively enforced for ~30 years until the end of WWII and the advent of antibiotic treatment, though there are reports of abuses until the 1960s (in 1965, the then 18 year old writer and radical feminist Andrea Dworkin was forced to undergo a painful pelvic exam under New York’s American Plan law when she was arrested at an anti-war demonstration). Not to worry anybody, but these laws are still on the books in most states and cities. 

Black women, Native American women, immigrant, and Latinx women were disproportionately singled out. Non-white women were said to have the racial characteristics of excessive promiscuity and – according to the Surgeon General of the United States! – to be anatomically susceptible to spreading social diseases. The laws were written as largely gender-neutral but men were only rarely singled out, and then usually just treated rather than detained for a prolonged period. The laws glossed over how men can transmit social diseases to other men; homosexuality was not something to acknowledge or discuss and, besides, it was already illegal in most states.

Because many records have been destroyed, the exact number of women subjected to this practice is not known, but at minimum it involved tens of thousands of women. Despite all this enforcement, the architects and enforcers of The American Plan were never able to demonstrate that it was effective in lowering the incidence of social diseases.

There is no fun in V.D." Anti-venereal disease poster, c. 1945.:  PropagandaPosters

The American Plan was not some dark government secret known only to an elite few insiders. It was widely reported and supported in newspapers and politicians of all bents, including Presidents, condoned it. Supporters – men and women alike – could be found across the political spectrum but there was particularly strong support among Progressives and liberals – the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Eleanor Roosevelt, Earl Warren (who would go on to become a liberal Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court), the League of Women Voters, to name a few. Some of these supporters criticized some specifics of the American Plan but they were not opposed to The American Plan itself. At the other end of the spectrum, Eliot Ness, he of The Untouchables, was actively involved in carrying out the plan at one point, as was J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. They all pretty much thought they were doing good for society and helping women. Many of the key players in developing and carrying out The American Plan also subscribed to eugenic beliefs and were members of eugenics societies. A source of consistent and significant financial support for many of the activities, beyond governments, was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and the Rockefeller Foundation (the Rockefellers also helped fund the Eugenics Record Office). Even when law suits were brought by women who had been incarcerated, the decisions sometimes supported a woman’s claims in a few cases but the legal validity of The American Plan itself was never questioned by the courts. 

Racist, sexist, rude, crude and dishonest: the golden age of Madison Avenue  .. 'because innocence is sexier than you think' | London Evening Standard |  Evening Standard

 

The primary non-governmental agency driving The American Plan was the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Formed in 1913 with Rockefeller funding, the ASHA essentially crafted the details of The American Plan, provided expert advice to the government, employed undercover agents in cities to hunt out suspicious locations and field workers who would work with local police in coordinating arrests, and crafted model legislation that was adopted almost verbatim by most states. The organization also pushed for enforcement of American Plan laws beyond primarily protecting soldiers to protecting the general public. ASHA has since changed its name and is now called the American Sexual Health Association, and its activities and goals are quite different and perhaps more noble than those of its predecessor. However, its website makes no acknowledgement of this shameful history and has only this to say about its past:

“ASHA was founded as the American Social Hygiene Association in 1914 by a group of public health reformers committed to attacking an undesirable social condition–venereal disease, or VD–that they believed could be improved through medical and educational means. The shame and reluctance to talk about sexuality was now weakened enough so that the public was at least generally aware of the dangers posed by VD. This was the first social marketing effort to mix physical and moral fitness for prevention of VD.”

I am in no position to speak for the ASHA but if I were a member I would want my organization to be more honest, open, and reflective about its past.

Propaganda and the law of unintended consequences < Yale School of Medicine

I am reluctant to draw lessons from history and I am hesitant about judging the past through the lens of the present. With such widespread and enthusiastic support for The American Plan, if we were alive then many of us might have been swept up by the social currents of the times and supported it in some fashion, just like many of us would probably have embraced some aspects of eugenics. We are not morally superior to our ancestors and we are all products of our times. That being said, this was a gross injustice carried out in the name of “doing good.” It needs to be more widely known and subjected to scholarly investigation and a national dialogue, at the very least.

When you are so convinced that you are doing good it can blind you to your actions’ downsides. As I’ve written about before, genetic counselors are particularly susceptible to “do-goodism.” What looks progressive to one generation can look awfully repressive to another generation. When we seek to do good, we should do so with humility, an eye to history, and a keen awareness that when we try to do good we can wind up doing a lot of bad.



For an interview with author Scott Stern about The American Plan on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p0LjJ8tTh0

For a podcast about this topic, see the History This Week Podcast: https://play.acast.com/s/d9768fa0-a79a-4ead-9102-f965e8a470bc/82177119-c36c-4a67-b906-94ae38000416



Unrelated to the above posting, I recently had a thirst for a dose of spirituality, a thirst perhaps driven by the existential wear and tear of the last few years. I am not a religious person – I am pretty much a we-are-all-star-stuff kind of person – but I do derive a deep satisfaction from contemplating the magic of life and the incomprehensible complexity of the universe. Which got me to thinking of the Indigenous Canadian singer Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1969 song “God Is Alive, Magic is Afoot.” The lyrics are taken from a section of the poet Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers. As far as I know, Leonard Cohen never recorded it as a song. Incidentally, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music was unofficially blacklisted in the US for a period because of her anti-war activities and her involvement with the Native American political movement. Honestly, the song doesn’t make much cognitive sense to me, but it does make intuitive sense. In particular, the closing lines always give a jolt to my sense of wonder:

And mind itself is magic coursing through the flesh
And flesh itself is magic dancing on a clock
And time itself, the magic length of God

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ACMG Carrier Screening Guidelines: Falling Short On Equity and Inclusion

by Katie Stoll and Robert Resta

The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG) recently published a new Clinical Practice Resource that they proclaim recommends an “equitable approach for offering carrier screening to all individuals during pregnancy or preconception.”

We recognize the drawbacks of a screening program based solely on reported ancestry or ethnicity. And we understand that ensuring the same standard of carrier screening is available to all patients regardless of race or ethnic background addresses an important equity concern. However, the ACMG guidelines fall short in several areas: 

  • Addressing the benefits of carrier screening
  • Questionable criteria for determining the severity of the included conditions
  • A limited definition of inclusivity
  • What choice patients should have in which conditions are or are not included in their personal screening.

The ACMG guidance is broad, calling for offering sequence-based population carrier screening for 113 genetic conditions to all patients who are pregnant or considering pregnancy. The rationale for expanded carrier screening according to the guideline is to allow for informed reproductive decisions. Specifically ACMG states that “reproductive decision making is the established metric for clinical utility of population-based carrier screening.” 

Five reproductive options are described in the guidelines: 1) In vitro fertilization with preimplantation genetic testing for monogenic conditions 2) Use of donor gamete/embryo, 3) Adoption 4) Prenatal diagnosis using chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis followed by a decision to either prepare for an affected child including special care after birth or to terminate the pregnancy. 5) A decision not to have children. We would add a sixth option –  choice of reproductive partner, though perhaps this is more likely in situations of arranged marriages, such as with the Dor Yeshorim program.

Of these potential options, only one – prenatal diagnosis – is an option for those who undergo carrier testing during pregnancy, a fairly common occurrence. For most of the 100+ conditions included in the list, there is at best sparse evidence that prenatal preparation offers concrete medical benefits or that such knowledge enhances emotional preparation and psychological adaptation to having a child with one of these conditions. For a significant portion of patients who participate in carrier screening – those who are screened while pregnant – the only immediate benefits are either pregnancy termination or carrying to term. Therefore, the guidelines should also strongly recommend research into the specific ways that prenatal knowledge of any condition included in the panel either do or don’t enhance obstetric/neonatal management and/or parental emotional preparation and adaptation to having a child with the condition. Particularly for parents who would not consider termination or alternative reproductive pathways, we should be able to offer compelling evidence that carrier screening has measurable benefits for them and for their children if we are to claim that preparation is a benefit of screening.

ACMG states that they used “published definitions”’ to define the severity of genetic conditions considered for inclusion. The published definitions they are referring to come from one single study, published by Counsyl (now Myriad Genetics), a lab that was among the first to offer expanded carrier screening. In this study conducted in 2013, Counsyl surveyed people for whom they had emails in their internal database (presumably customers and/or staff) and asked respondents to provide their ratings of severity for five conditions that they felt represented a spectrum of health and developmental concerns. The outcome was responses from 192 genetic counselors and physicians. The opinions of these respondents is what ACMG is basing  recommendations for a mass population carrier screening program. 

The Counsyl study grouped severity into the following categories:

  1. Profound: shortened lifespan during infancy or childhood, intellectual disability; 
  2. Severe: death in early adulthood, impaired mobility or a [disabling] malformation involving an internal organ; 
  3. Moderate: neurosensory impairment, immune deficiency or cancer, mental illness, dysmorphic features. 

It is concerning that this study puts conditions that are associated with intellectual disability in the same group as those that are associated with death in infancy/early childhood. Also, if we look across the lifespan, many, if not most of us will experience some features that could be counted in the Severe and/or Moderate buckets. 

We cannot assume that this limited survey of healthcare providers is representative of the viewpoints of the US population. This survey did not include the perspectives of people who themselves have lived experience with the conditions included on the ACMG panel, or even people outside of the medical genetics community.

A condition that comes up frequently with expanded carrier screening is related to GJB2-related DFNB1 nonsyndromic hearing loss. GJB2 is included on the recommended ACMG panel on the basis of population frequency (second only to CFTR on the basis of current US-wide population frequencies) and in that it is considered of “moderate” severity based on the Counsyl study. Many in the Deaf community do not consider hearing loss a disability or disease, and we imagine many people who are homozygous for GJB2 mutations would not classify their hearing loss as a moderately severe condition.

We need to recognize that as much as we might try to avoid bringing our own biases into the way we counsel patients, or how we define the severity of a condition, the mere act of offering a prenatal test is not value neutral. There are negative associations implied for any condition we are including on a prenatal testing panel that by definition has a clinical utility metric of influencing reproductive decisions. We need to recognize our responsibility in that it is us in the medical genetics community who determine what is included on genetic screens, and we are also who defines what these conditions are in how we describe them to patients (be that in how we write a summary on a lab report or counsel people in clinic).

Stakeholder perspectives beyond the genetics community should be involved in development of these guidelines including what is included on screening panels and how we define these conditions for our patients. Perspectives from people with intellectual disabilities, the Deaf community and those living with cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, spinal muscular atrophy, and other conditions being considered for inclusion on a carrier panel should have their voices included.

ACMG has been called to task previously on the issue of not including patient voices in the development of guidelines; see Nothing About Us Without Us: Guidelines for Genetic Testing.  And the National Council on Disability specifically recommended that “Professional standards of care for offering NIPS and other prenatal genetic tests should be established through consensus negotiations that include genetic counselors, obstetrics and gynecology care providers, and representatives from affected disability communities.”

Another concern not addressed in the guidelines is whether patients have a choice to not include certain conditions in a screen. For example, someone may wish not to screen for a specific condition given historical negative experiences of racial stigma and bias (see this interview and article to learn more about  problems encountered when carrier testing for sickle cell was introduced in the 1970s). Someone may wish to limit screening only to conditions for which we have a high degree of certainty of outcome, or only to conditions for which death in infancy/childhood is expected and for which there are no effective treatments. As Lisa Dive and Ainsely Newson point out in a recent thoughtful paper on reproductive carrier screening, some may find screening for life-limiting conditions to be acceptable and prefer not to screen for all conditions on a panel. If the goal of carrier screening is to support informed and autonomous choices, patients should be able to decide what is included on their screening.  

Concerns regarding how conditions were defined and about the lack of diverse stakeholder perspectives, including those with disabilities and genetic conditions, were raised with ACMG during the development of this guideline and no actions were taken to address them. In ACMG’s email announcement to members about the new Practice Resource, lead author Anthony R. Gregg, MD, MBA was quoted as saying, “The benefits of carrier screening are clear. The greatest benefits can be achieved by accepting the challenge that all women be offered carrier screening not during pregnancy, but as they move from being pediatric patients to patients requiring well-women care. Professional organizations must respond to this call.” At the same time, ACMG is pushing state legislatures to not allow genetic counselors to order genetic testing. For many patients, genetic counselors are a common point of contact in preconception planning and during pregnancy. It is hard to see how such a policy enhances equity and access to testing if a genetic counselor cannot order a genetic test.

We will be waiting to see how professional organizations respond to this call. While it is too late for change to come with ACMG’s publication, other professional organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) can do better and demonstrate a genuine commitment to advancing equity and inclusion for all people by including diverse stakeholder voices, including those with genetic conditions and disabilities, in the development of guidelines related to carrier screening.  

As the healthcare providers charged with the responsibility of guiding care, it is imperative that we do the important work of inviting all marginalized stakeholder populations to the table, hear their concerns, and address them before releasing guidelines that shape policies that will affect all of us. Equity extends beyond access to health services. As explained by Dr. Richard Besser at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

Health equity cannot be achieved without actual lived experiences informing and advancing policies, regulations, laws and initiatives that address disability rights, accessibility and inclusion.

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Not Ready to Make Nice: Juggling unabashed advocacy and NSGC’s insidious culture of “nice”

Jordan Brown, MA, MS, CGC

All sentiments expressed in the essay below are completely my own and do not represent the opinions of either The Ohio State University or the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).

This essay was initially intended as a blog post for NSGC Perspectives.*

Reacting to the recent Ohio and Arizona legislative “reason bans” which prohibit abortion based on prenatal diagnosis, many of my colleagues and members of NSGC wrote to the Board about the need for the organization to respond to these developments. After multiple conversations, NSGC Leadership asked me to write a piece explaining to members that it is okay to be an unabashed advocate as an individual genetic counselor (and not under the NSGC umbrella) and that advocacy via NSGC does not need to be the only avenue through which to voice opinions and support change.

I agreed to this task in the moment, seeing it as a way to reach members and encourage participation in ongoing efforts focused on increasing access to reproductive care. But when I sat down to write, I could not do it without feeling like I’m directly supporting a culture of “nice” in our organization – in other words, a culture of being complacent and biting one’s tongue when disagreements exist. Although this culture of “nice” is not something that is unique to (the lack of) advocacy efforts around reproductive issues, I think it is especially highlighted in this sphere.

In my first year as a NSGC member, I applied for and was selected to serve on the Public Policy Committee (PPC) and thought I had found my niche. Did I know exactly what the committee did? Nope, but I was filled with optimism that this role would permit me to be involved in hard, meaningful conversations about policy-related issues with my colleagues. This was particularly important to me when considering our organization’s position on reproductive justice, and specifically regarding abortion. I was surprised to learn that the role and responsibility of the PPC was really limited to revision and reaffirmation of existing position statements, most of which, however relevant and important to our profession, tread very lightly on issues which can be perceived as “political,” such as social and reproductive justice concerns.

Throughout my time as a PPC member, I noticed a lingering sense of frustration that the committee was consistently instructed not to raise issues related to NSGC’s stance on reproductive freedom and abortion. We had a position statement on “Reproductive Freedom” that was initially composed in 2014 and reaffirmed with no edits in 2017 after an attempted revision was quashed. Is the position statement well written? Sure. Does it acknowledge the importance of autonomy in reproductive decision making? Yes. It is an adequate statement, and that is about it. It has just enough substance to be able to say we have a statement, but not enough substance to be truly meaningful or actionable in any way, shape, or form.

Conversations about whether the Reproductive Freedom statement should be reaffirmed or revised ultimately culminated in the decision, year after year, to leave the unedited 2014 statement off the PPC’s working docket. Each time, the justification for this was that any controversial moves might jeopardize the passage of our federal bill. In 2021, as I transitioned to PPC leadership, it quickly became apparent that much of the feedback was coming directly from NSGC’s [unelected] lobbyist. I will not lie, it would be easy at this point to let my emotions take over. Actually, I am going to let them take over for a second. The mansplaining emails, the gas-lighting, the rude political comments at conferences, and the long-standing bizarre seemingly patriarchal power dynamic with NSGC Leadership all feels icky and gross.

However, this is something much bigger than personal feelings. The culture of “nice” is, and historically has been, pervasive in our profession. Sure, I understand that not everyone is up for a fight. This is not about excluding or devaluing our colleagues whose personal values and convictions do not align. This is not about picking sides. It is okay for genetic counselors to not personally support abortion, in fact it is beautiful to have an opinion-diverse organization. What is not okay, however, is for the organization as a whole to place the responsibility of advocacy on the few members who are actually willing to put a target on our backs under the dismissive rhetoric of “abortion is a topic that not all members agree upon.” Additionally, let’s stop displacing the weight of this onto our patients. Obviously, we all want our patients to have autonomy in their reproductive decision-making. This does not just mean abortion; this means access to reproductive healthcare as a whole, and this is integral to our profession regardless of one’s specialty or personal values. Reproductive justice is much, much more than abortion and is inherently intersectional. J in JEDI stands for Justice. If NSGC is outwardly dedicated to JEDI efforts, NSGC must also be outwardly dedicated to reproductive justice.

Frankly, at this point it seems as if many advocacy efforts within NSGC are completely on hold pending the passage of the federal bill. Our bill is important, for so many reasons. While there are other organizations that advocate for other efforts, NSGC is the only one that is advocating for the recognition of genetic counselors by CMS. However, at what point does speaking up about a larger societal injustice (namely, decreased, and in some cases completely restricted access to abortion care) that may come with losing some (or even a lot) of support on the Hill outweigh playing the politics game? For years, members have urged NSGC leadership and the Government Relations team to speak up on the ongoing legislative efforts to decrease access to reproductive health care; to boldly state that we as an organization (whose field [clinical genetics] was born of undeniably eugenics roots) believe it is unquestionably WRONG for forced sterilizations to occur in any circumstance but particularly at the US/Mexico border; and to acknowledge that we cannot have authentic JEDI efforts without including advocating for reproductive justice. At some point, continued silence and non-action is complicity.

Most of our members have ovaries and a uterus. One of every four people with functional ovaries and uterus has an abortion during their lifetime. Do the math. As a genetic counselor who has had an abortion, our organization’s continued silence stings. I have no negative feelings or regrets about having had an abortion, however NSGC’s lack of response on the essential nature of access to abortion care is hurtful. I cannot be the only one feeling this way.

As a middle-class, white, cis-female with access to great healthcare and reasonable understanding about how to navigate the US health system, I had to travel out of state to have a second-trimester abortion. I do not feel that this is the space to discuss the details of my own experience, but I will say that the added stress of jumping through logistical hoops further intensified my own emotions at the time. This is real stuff, and this was all before the recent attention on anti-abortion legislations throughout the country.

I only disclose my own experience to highlight that it is often hard for individuals regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender identity to access abortion services and reproductive healthcare in general. For individuals without my resources, the challenges are more acute, and care is often inaccessible. If we are going to say that we, as NSGC, value diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, then we must advocate for access to reproductive healthcare and abortion services as an organization. We know there is power in numbers, it is far overdue that we utilize that power and use our voice to advocate for both ourselves and the patients we serve.

This essay is surely not what the NSGC Leadership expected when they asked me to write a piece on how to be an advocate outside of NSGC. It goes without saying that you should be able to be an advocate outside of NSGC. There should be no repercussions from the organization for individuals advocating for a better world as they see it, and for taking a stand and being outspoken about injustices pertaining to our profession, the medical community, and society at large. The fact that this would need to be said is problematic in and of itself. Let us disrupt the culture of “nice” within our organization so we can truly be unabashed advocates for ourselves and our patients. 

NSGC’s continued silence on this issue has not and will not go unnoticed. If you feel as though NSGC should take a clear and strong stance on reproductive justice, please consider the following action plan.

  1. Email the Board, and consider encouraging your patient advocates to email the Board. Let them know how important it is to take a firm stand on this issue.
    1. Who do I email?
      1. nsgc@nsgc.org (Attention NSGC Board of Directors)
  1. What do I include in the subject line? (Feel free to copy and paste)
    1. NSGC Advocacy for Abortion Access and Reproductive Healthcare
  1. What do I say? (Feel free to copy and paste)

Dear NSGC Leadership,

As a member of NSGC, I would like to see the organization respond directly to ongoing legislative efforts to decrease access to abortion and to advocate for reproductive healthcare. Our voice as genetic counselors on these issues is long overdue.

Thank you,

Name

  1. Take this two question survey regarding your opinions NSGC’s role in advocating for abortion access and reproductive healthcare.
  2. Advocate outside of NSGC. This list was curated with the help of Katie Sagaser, MS, CGC. The resources and suggestions listed below are just a stepping stone. Do some research regarding ongoing advocacy efforts in your state.
    1. Join the National Network of Abortion Funds (https://abortionfunds.org/) and become a monthly donor.
      1. Consider setting up a recurring donation directly to your local fund.
      1. Consider whether you might be able to support not only your local fund, but also a fund for a region to which you frequently need to refer patients. For example, the DC Abortion Fund and Baltimore Abortion Fund both provide funds to out-of-state patients traveling for abortion care in those areas.
      1. What else can you do to help support your local fund? Do you have some free time in which you could provide transportation to someone who needs a ride to their appointment? Your local fund facilitates that. Do you have a spare bedroom that you could loan to someone who needs to stay overnight before their procedure? Your local fund facilitates that. There are SO many ways to help these local funds (and independent abortion clinics, too) – usually volunteers are needed to help staff helplines, create content on Instagram and Twitter, translate documents into Spanish, and assist with fundraising.
      1. Regarding Arizona specifically: The Abortion Fund of Arizona (https://www.abortionfundofaz.org/) is a NNAF affiliate and a fantastic resource.
    1. Set up a recurring donation to SisterSong (https://www.sistersong.net/), the largest national multi-ethnic Reproductive Justice collective. SisterSong founders and leadership are truly the change makers and who we need to be looking up to in the reproductive justice space.
    1. Regarding Ohio specifically…
      1. Ohio GCs, consider donating your money and/or time to Women Have Options (https://www.womenhaveoptions.org/), which provides financial and practical assistance for abortion services.
      1. Support New Voices for Reproductive Justice (http://www.newvoicespittsburgh.org/), “a social change movement dedicated to the health and well-being of Black women and girls through leadership development, Human Rights and Reproductive Justice.”
      1. Consider referencing OPEN (http://open.osu.edu/) for current educational material and ongoing research on reproductive healthcare policy in the state of Ohio.
      1. See below for information about NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.
    1. If you are particularly interested in public policy, you might consider joining your local NARAL Pro-Choice America chapter (they exist in CA, CT, GA, MD, MA, MI, MS, NV, NC, OH, OR, VA, WA, and WY).
      1. Sign up to take their volunteer training and join one of their committees – whether you want to ensure reproductive justice in the form of promoting comprehensive sex education in schools, contraceptive access at colleges, menstrual product access to immigrants, or health policy measures as they pertain to reproduction in your state, there is going to be a committee for you.
      1. You do NOT need to reinvent the wheel because there literally are folks whose entire jobs are devoted to this – they just need our time commitment (and usually donations don’t hurt either).
    1. The ACLU has a specific Reproductive Freedom initiative, and on their website you can sign up to donate your time in the form of hosting/organizing events, making calls, and other ways.
    1. Consider donating your time, spiritual energy, and physical presence in the form of being an abortion doula.
    1. Say the word “abortion.” Seriously, say it. Mirroring patient language is important, but the more that we avoid this term in daily life, the more that we add to its stigma. How can you speak more openly about abortion as an important and necessary component of healthcare? Can you perhaps even invite some of these conversations by carrying an “abortion is healthcare” tote bag to the grocery store, or wearing an “abortion is healthcare” mask to the gym?

Be on the lookout for the launch of the GENUINE Collective: Genetics Providers United in Efforts for Reproductive Justice. This Collective will serve as a landing page for advocacy resources and opportunities as well as an open discussion forum for members.

The GENUINE Collective is an independent group of clinical genetics professionals dedicated to shameless advocacy for reproductive justice in the United States of America and beyond.

While persons involved in the Collective may hold memberships in various professional medical societies, the Collective is not, in any way, affiliated with professional medical societies.

*Previously I said NSGC Perspective’s declined to publish this article, NSGC has asked me to retract this statement, I would like to clarify that while I never received a written rejection from NSGC, they did not respond to the submission (after requesting an essay with a quick turnaround time), only responded after author follow-up, and stated that this piece was not in line with the goal of Perspectives.

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Bob has retired. What are the Resta us going to do now?

A few months ago, Robert Resta shared his plans to retire with the DNA Exchange author group. Retirement announcements have felt more bitter than sweet during these strange times of Covid-19 when we cannot gather to recognize the moment and celebrate the incredible careers of our friends and mentors. And what a remarkable career Bob has had. Following completion of his genetic counseling training at UC Irvine in 1983, Bob started work at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, WA. He worked at Swedish for 37 years, first as the director of genetic counseling in the perinatal clinic and then founding the hereditary cancer clinic in 2006. It is pretty remarkable in this day and age when genetic counselors move jobs so frequently that Bob dedicated nearly four decades to one institution. In addition to counseling thousands of patients over the years, Bob has contributed much to the genetic counseling profession. He was on the editorial board for the Journal of Genetic Counseling for 10 years and Editor-in-Chief from 1995-2001. He has contributed to numerous books and has authored dozens of peer reviewed publications. And, to date, he has authored 117 essays for the DNA Exchange. 

While I had known he had been edging towards retirement for a while now, I had hoped that he would continue to provide his unique form of wisdom on DNA Exchange for years to come. He has said that he doesn’t think he’ll have much to contribute to the blog in his retirement and he encouraged us to think of bringing in new voices to this forum.

Although I wish him the very best in his retirement I hope he might speak up now and then. We have so much more to learn from him. Of course I understand that now that he is no longer working in a clinic, we will not see funny, thought-provoking, touching posts about patient interactions. And he may not keep up with what is happening with this lab or that lab to be able to offer his commentary on changes in the industry and how it is affecting patients.

I have appreciated every piece Bob has written, however what has been most important to me have been those that provide historical perspective. He has a remarkable gift for using a historical lens to provide context for what is happening today. And he has a unique gift for shining a light on even the darkest corners of our profession’s formative years with wit and wisdom that allows us to take in uncomfortable truths. We need to keep reflecting on this history as the field progresses.

If indeed Bob no longer feels inspired to write for the DNA Exchange (or even if he does) it is worthwhile to go back to the DNA Exchange archives and read his prior publications.

Fun Fact: the number one most popular post of all time on the DNA Exchange is, “And Bob’s Your Uncle: A Guide To Defining Great Aunts, Great-Great Grandparents, First Cousins Once-Removed, and Other Kinfolk.” This essay has topped the charts nearly every day since it was published, garnering over 189K views at the time of this post.

Some other fan favorites of Mr. Resta’s posts include:

p + q = Solved, Being the True Story of How the Chromosome Got Its Name

Why “H.R.3235 The Access To Genetic Counselors Services Act” Makes ACMG Feel Threatened By Genetic Counselors (Again)

Facts, Figures and Fictions in Genetic Counseling

What Do We Mean By “Psychosocial” in Genetic Counseling?

While many of his short essays provide historical context for genetic counseling he also has several that predict the future of the field. I will admit that I have lost sleep over some of these posts, at least the ones that I dislike his predictions. Perhaps this is because he’s been right so many times. It’s as if he has the power to set our destiny by putting words on the internet.

Work Shift: A (Wrong?) Prediction

Who The Hell Do We Think We Are? 12 Questions About The Future Of Genetic Counseling

Are We There Yet?

Will the DNA Exchange fade away without Bob? If asked, he might predict this would be the case. After all, he has written more than 40% of the content for this blog and has been our steadiest contributor since it was founded in 2009. But despite Bob’s facility for predicting the future, the fate of the DNA Exchange is really in our hands. This is a call to those of you among our genetic counseling who want to contribute and share your unique and diverse perspectives on the field we love. We need to hear from you!

The best tribute we could offer Bob is to help new voices keep alive the forum he helped to build. A new generation of genetic counselors has much to tell us.  I hope that some of you will choose to share those stories here, in the tradition of Bob Resta, the cranky and wonderful sage of genetic counseling. 

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Bias In The Genetic Counseling Profession: Reimagining The Certification Exam

By Sarah Hopkins

Sarah Hopkins, MS, CGC works as a genetic counselor in a bleeding disorder clinic in NYC. She also works as a project coordinator for a COVID19 biobank. On Twitter @SarahGenetics

It has been observed for decades that genetic counseling is an overwhelmingly white profession. The profession has been sensitive to this, and organization leaders have endeavored to eliminate bias and reduce barriers to the field. In particular, it’s been recognized that the Board exam has biased questions. Unlike in nursing or medicine, however, we don’t know whether our Board pass rates vary by ethnicity because those data are not collected.

Standardized testing has disadvantaged people of color in numerous fields of testing since the early 1900s. Among the founders of standardized testing was Princeton psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham, who wrote that the SAT would help prove the superiority of the white race and prevent “the infiltration of white blood into the Negro.” Standardized tests helped place US soldiers in units segregated by race and test score. Test scores have repeatedly been shown to predict the test taker’s race and wealth, and not clinical competence. Civil rights lawsuits on behalf of people of color and students with disabilities have challenged the use of standardized testing in undergraduate and graduate admissions, as well as in certification in other professions.

Educational institutions have been dropping the tests, even more so during the pandemic. While Board certification is required by states that grant licensure, and most employers require it, that doesn’t mean the Boards must continue in their current form.

Genetic counselors have devoted years of practice analyses and committee work towards removing bias in Board questions, and yet ethnic stereotyping persists. Racism continues through unconscious and unquestioned assumptions. I just learned from an MTV video, of all places, that the term “Caucasian,” which we genetic counselors are among the last groups to use, is outdated and absurd. The Boards continue to be no more enlightened than I am. The exam I took featured a question with a Chinese American family silently refusing to discuss their shame surrounding a genetic condition.  Another question described an “East Indian family,” a eurocentric term best abandoned along with Caucasian. The East Indian couple features a husband making all the decisions while the wife sits silently. The only woman in the exam who has children with more than one partner is Hispanic. Inherited genetic conditions in the exam are “common in Jewish communities because of arranged marriages.” One question asks about the use of interpreters and assumes you, the genetic counselor, are fluent only in English, and not, say, Mandarin.

Many, if not most genetic counselors are concerned with the lack of diversity in the field, about inequity in recruitment, admission, curriculum, hiring and promotion. We podcast and blog about it, we tweet and post, we meet virtually and in person. But trying to eliminate bias in multiple choice exams ignores the original mistake of using these exams in the first place. We’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Multiple choice tests do not lend themselves to the subtlety that is required in clinical practice. Patients don’t present with five choices. If we want to ensure graduates are ready to practice, then we should use open-ended questions. Internist and essayist Danielle Ofri recommends that physician recertification be open-book, and not timed. She argues that open-book tests would mimic real life, that in clinical practice, memorization of facts alone is insufficient. We look things up and consult colleagues. Relying solely on memory, she writes, amounts to malpractice.

Open-ended questions are also preferable to multiple choice because they easily allow for change. We’ll change our minds in one year, five years, ten years about which test to order, how we refer to an ethnic group, the way we approach a diagnosis. Multiple choice tests don’t allow the kind of nimble approach we need as our practice changes. When we cling to a multiple choice exam to confer certification on genetic counselors, we are putting ourselves at the mercy of the testing industry. We are not allowing for inevitable change in a field that changes more quickly than most.

Exam questions could be written by a required number of genetic counselors who are from underrepresented ethnic groups. The Boards could be graded by genetic counselors, using an agreed-upon rubric developed by experts in each area. Graders could be awarded continuing education credits for their work. Pass rates should be reported by ethnic groups, perhaps over a three-year period, to enhance anonymity.

The challenges we face with the pandemic, coupled with the imperative to address systemic racism provide an opening to imagine a new approach to certification. We should dispense with a testing method that has never served our profession well. Next stop: diversifying graduate admissions.

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What A Mess

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.   – Apocryphal quote, likely incorrectly attributed to George Bernard Shaw

A South Carolina court recently granted a summary judgment in favor of the defendant in the case of Williams v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., Athena Diagnostics, Inc,  ADI Diagnostics, Inc.  The ruling is particularly relevant to the genetics profession because it concerns the potential legal implications of the classification of genetic variants.

This legal odyssey began nearly 5 years ago but the clinical story began 14 years ago, and was first reported here on The DNA Exchange. Briefly, Amy Williams, the plaintiff, filed a suit in 2016 on behalf of her deceased son alleging negligence on the part of Athena (now owned by Quest) when in 2007 it classified a variant in the SCN1A gene as a Variant of Uncertain Significance (VUS) in her son who had a seizure disorder. SCN1A pathogenic variants are diagnostic for Dravet syndrome.

Multiple specialists were involved in the child’s care, but it seems from the medical records that none of them were actually aware of the genetic test results. The ordering physician could not recall having seen the report and the treating physicians never received a copy of the report or a communication from the ordering physician about the result, even though a copy of the report is in the medical records. Consequently, her son’s treating physician kept him on carbamazepine, a sodium channel blocker that is contra-indicated in children with Dravet syndrome. Sadly, he died about 6 months later, likely due to the contraindicated medication. Ms. Williams did not find out about the SCN1A result until nearly 7 years after the report was issued, and then only after a genetic counselor who was sifting through the records found a note from 2008 referring to an SCN1A VUS (for a fuller description of this saga, I refer you to the excellent articles written by Turna Ray, a journalist for Genome Web).

The lab’s defense rested on a legal technicality of the statute of limitations. Per South Carolina law, litigation cannot be brought against a healthcare provider if the offense took place more than 3 years prior to the filing. The lab’s lawyers argued, and in 2018 the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed, that a lab qualifies as a healthcare provider under state law. Subsequently, Judge Margaret Seymour, the judge who presided over the original case (and who displayed an excellent grasp of the genetic and legal issues), found that several of the plaintiff’s claims were “comprised of allegations sounding in both medical malpractice and ordinary negligence” and allowed the matter to move to discovery for the purpose of determining what caused Athena’s laboratory staff to misclassify the gene variant. Ms. Williams and her lawyers proceeded with the case based on “claims for wrongful death, survival, negligent misrepresentation, constructive fraud, and violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act.” Following discovery, the defendants requested a summary judgment to dismiss the case (in a summary judgment, either a plaintiff or a defendant can assert that the facts in the case are not in question and ask the judge to make a decision on the case without a full trial). 

Judge Seymour based her decision on the statute of limitations ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court and the likely inability to prove proximate cause (i.e., that the VUS classification led to continued treatment with carbamazepine which then caused the child’s death), and dismissed the case: “The court concludes that no reasonable jury could find Defendants erred in classifying Decedent’s variant as a VUS, or that any misclassification was the result of nonmedical, administrative, ministerial, or routine care. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted as to this issue.”

In an unfortunately cruel twist, Ms. Williams and her lawyers may owe Quest and its lawyers ~$140,000 in court sanctions imposed after some personal emails and other documents that, in my view likely had little bearing on the facts of the case, were deleted or improperly withheld because of less than stellar legal representation. The defendant’s lawyers offered to drop the costs stemming from sanctions if Ms. Williams agreed not to discuss the case in public forums and to discourage others from doing so. However, she did not agree to the proposal and remains firm in her belief that her son’s story needs to be discussed in public for the benefit of the public and the genetics profession, even in the face of potential financially ruin.

Was Athena’s original variant classification appropriate? Published case reports at the time the interpretation was first issued suggested that the SCN1A variant could be likely pathogenic (that was not the common terminology at the time), one of which was co-authored by Athena staff. Yet comments in the test report state there is an “absence of published studies correlating these variant(s) with clinical presentation and/or pathology.” In April of 2009, 2 years after the report was issued, Athena reclassified the variant as pathogenic, although they cited no new evidence beyond what was available when the report was first issued. Specialists in variant classification, who understand the intricacies of variant classification far better than I do, have weighed in and most have argued that Athena’s original classification of a VUS was appropriate for the knowledge available in 2007. Currently there are two entries for this variant in ClinVar, neither of which make an attempt at classification. I am not about to get into a debate with good scientists who know a heck of a lot more than I do about variant classification. I will say this, though, as someone who orders genetic testing every day, I rely heavily on labs to interpret variants and to let me know when there is in a result that might be grayer than ordinary. Especially in a case where a treatment decision with life and death implications hinges on a test result, I would expect the lab to explain their justification for the interpretation and to have made it clear in writing in the report. A phone call to the ordering provider wouldn’t hurt either, to be sure that the critical information and any uncertainty is clearly communicated.

Just as egregious, Ms. Williams should not have learned of a genetic test result almost 7 years after it was issued, and then only almost incidentally. Nor does it appear that the physicians who cared for the child were aware of the updated classification or communicated it to one another – not surprising, given that they were apparently unaware of the original report. Had she been notified in a timely manner, she may have initiated a discussion of why the variant was classified this way and if the evidence was strong enough to be the basis for treatment decisions. Of course this burden should not be on the patient but it could have offered another opportunity for further exploring treatment decisions based on the result. Many of us in the medical field, including me, have been critical of the requirement of the 21st Century CURES Act to notify patients of test results within 24 hours of when they are ready. My grumbling aside, Amy Williams and her son would have greatly benefited from being notified of her son’s result 24 hours after it were available. Does it have to take an Act of Congress to ensure that healthcare providers are responsible communicators with their patients?

In my view, nothing good came of this case in terms of the reputation of the genetics community, though of course nowhere near as bad as the devastating effects for Amy Williams and her son. To resurrect the line from the Captain’s speech in the movie “Cool Hand Luke“, what we have here is failure to communicate. Basically, a child may have died prematurely because of poor communication between the lab and care providers, between care providers, between care providers and the patient’s mother, and between the lab and the patient’s mother. Everybody lost and nobody won, even if Athena/Quest won from the perspective of not having to pay damages.

Will we now become better at communicating results to patients? Perhaps the CURES Act will help some. But as genetic testing expands well beyond the genetics community, communication about the implications of test results will likely still be deficient in many instances, in part because many non-specialists who order genetic tests are not particularly adept at interpreting them. Furthermore, although it’s hats’ off to ClinVar and other collaborative efforts for classify variants, variant classification will continue to be an Achilles’ heel of genome analysis because there is just no profit in it and it can be so damned complicated. 

I look back on this story and feel a knot in my stomach.

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When Good Genetic Counselors Are Bad Role Models

I will be retiring at the end of this year. In a natural reflex triggered at career’s end, I have been reflecting on my 37+ years as a genetic counselor. Among other things, I have been pondering what traits make for a good genetic counselor, what makes us better or worse at our jobs. So far, I have not come up with brilliant insights that would vastly improve professional practice.

Except maybe this one – we are sometimes not so good at asking for help from one another in our workplaces or saying “No” to more work when our workloads are already overwhelming. We, who are so dedicated to helping others, are not so good at helping ourselves.

Many of us are guilty of this sin to varying degrees and in different ways. Sure I’ll see that last minute add-on at 4:30 today even though I  came in early and had planned on leaving at 3:30. If I come in to the office over the weekend, I can catch up on my dictations. I can’t refuse the last minute ask by my boss for an analysis of clinic data over the last 3 years for a presentation she is giving tomorrow, even though I have a full patient load. That patient has a busy schedule; I told him I would come in an hour early to accommodate his schedule. Or worst of all, coming in to work when you’re sick because “it’s just so busy”; just what the colleagues need, a super-spreader (maybe one good thing that has come out of the awful COVID epidemic is that people may now be more willing to use their PTO when they are sick).

Part of the reason we are so willing to overwork ourselves is that genetic counselors are uniformly compassionate people. We care deeply about our patients and we want to do our best to help them through difficult times. If we didn’t, we would never have made it past the gatekeepers of the profession, the ones who decide who does or doesn’t get admitted to or stay in the training programs. Compassion and empathy were in the vows we took when we wed ourselves to the genetic counseling profession (back in the day, we OGC’s – Original Genetic Counselors – also took a vow of poverty but fortunately nowadays that vow has been dropped from the list).

But I think there is another reason that contributes to our inability to just say no – professional insecurity and professional self-image. Deep down, we like to think of ourselves as superheroes. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we are not indestructible superheroes capable of withstanding the forces that attack us and test our strength as we fly to the rescue of our patients, or for others to think we are vulnerable. Asking for help is our kryptonite.

 

We worry too that our genetic counseling colleagues will think the less of us if we say to them “You know, I am starting to fall behind in my work. Could someone else see one of my patients today?” Or that we might look less than compassionate if we say to a patient or a referring provider “I would ordinarily squeeze in this last minute referral. But there just isn’t enough room in my schedule today to accommodate your request.” These kinds of responses can gnaw at your image of your professional self and make you feel inferior. After all, you look around and your other colleagues seem pretty busy too but they aren’t saying no to extraordinary demands. Maybe I am not as a good a genetic counselor as they are. So instead, you wind up sucking it up and taking on the extra work.

This is an insidious frame of mind. It contributes to professional burnout and compassion fatigue. After a while, you just can’t take it anymore. Which nearly  happened to me some 5 or 6 years ago when I came within a heartbeat of walking away from the profession. One of my great strengths as a genetic counselor is that I am incredibly efficient. Which is also my great weakness; my ability to get things done led to greater workloads as it seemed that I could absorb nearly any workload. I finally told my boss that either I get more help immediately or I’m outta’ here. A gamble, but it paid off. I got the help I needed lickety-split and today I work with 3 terrific genetic counseling colleagues. I became a more human superhero for having done it.

The problem propagates itself across generations when you realize that we, consciously or unconsciously, are role models for younger counselors and students. They see us burdening ourselves with ridiculous work loads. Even if we tell them to not do as we have done, they subconsciously get the message that this is the way good genetic counselors are supposed to be. They admire us and want to, if not exactly be clones of us, fashion themselves into some approximate image of us based mostly on our actions, not our words. Unfortunately, the role models put up a damned good front.

Sure, some of this stems from management, who unfailingly claim there is a budget crisis and who seem to have an ingrained belief that there is one too many staff around here or that more patients can miraculously be shoehorned into a schedule. That part of the blame is on them and their out-of-clinical-touch mindthink. But a goodly part of the blame is on ourselves. We will never get help if we don’t ask for it. And we can start by asking for help from each other. Even if your colleagues are just as busy and can’t help you out, it becomes an opportunity for everyone to acknowledge or realize that we don’t have to be the Justice League of Genetic Counseling, always ready to save the genetic universe. We are, at the end of the day, imperfect humans trying to make super-human efforts. If we can’t always save the day, we are not failures. If we embrace this, we will be better genetic counselors.

 

On another topic altogether, with the help of Emily Singh I have created a pair of graphics to reinforce the message that masks are symbols of compassion, not repression, and to urge my American readers to vote in the upcoming election. Remember – many superheroes wear masks. This is one way we can help save the world without adding to our workload.

 

 

 

 

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JOAN H. MARKS 

In Memoriam

1929-2020

Of all the pioneers who helped shape the field of genetic counseling, it is likely that no one was more influential than Joan H. Marks, who died on September 14th at the age of 91.  In 1972, when Joan took over the 3-year-old program at Sarah Lawrence College that now bears her name, there was no accrediting body, no national society, no Journal of Genetic Counseling.  She stayed for 26 years, a dominating and charismatic presence, often intimidating, often demanding – a fierce advocate for both genetic counselors and their patients, who she insisted deserved more than a lecture on chromosomes and recessive inheritance.  

When your friends and relatives ask you, as they still do, ‘what is a genetic counselor?’ the answer you provide, whether you know it or not, is an echo of Joan’s vision, distilled in a generation of students who went on to define their roles in workplaces across the country, to found NSGC and ABGC, and to serve as teachers and program directors in their turn, passing along the ethos that remains integral to the field.  

I met Joan when I interviewed at Sarah Lawrence in 1999, when she was very much the eminence grise.  “I imagine you’ll get in,” she said to me, looking over my transcript with a practiced air, and I was thrilled – an excitement that was immediately tempered when she mentioned that she would not be sticking around to educate this new class of genetic counselors.  As a charter member of the post-Joan-Marks generation of Sarah Lawrence alums, I can attest to the lingering effects of her legacy.  

Still, devoted former students have told me over the years that I was unlucky not to have known her better.  No doubt this is true (and no offense to Caroline Lieber, who inherited the mantle at Sarah Lawrence and was a great program director in her own right).  So today I would like to invite all of you who knew Joan Marks as a student or a colleague or a friend to treat this post as a sort of an invitation and add your reminiscences here.  

First up, a lovely tribute form Caroline Lieber herself, who talks about her experience filling some very big shoes in the world of genetic counseling.  I hope that many others will fill the comments.

Joan Marks: One of a kind

Caroline Lieber, MS, CGC Director Emeritus, Sarah Lawrence College Joan H Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics

I met Joan Marks in February 1978.  My then-boyfriend and I flew to New York and then took the train to the Sarah Lawrence campus, two California kids in New York for the first time.  He waited outside of Morrill House while she and I “talked.”  It felt more like she talked and I listened.  After the interview I said, “I am not sure that went so well….” 

But when I called my parents from South America that July to check-in, my father excitedly said, “You got accepted at Sarah Lawrence!” My boyfriend and I packed our meager belongings and headed east. Two California kids in New York for the second time. We arrived two weeks before classes were scheduled to start.  I was going to be a genetic counselor!

Having been undergraduate genetics major, I was comfortable in the science courses. The psychology courses were a different story.  As our instructor for “Issues in Genetic Counseling,” Joan had us read broadly about ethical concerns, the depth of emotional responses to genetic conditions in families, and articles to help identify counseling techniques and how to use them.  She commented in detail on each paper we wrote.  In one paper I found recently, she pointed out some inconsistencies in my thinking.  She further remarked, “But what’s good is that you see yourself as a counselor and you see how tough it can be. I’d like you to reread what you’ve written carefully and try to be objective-aren’t you inserting some biases here and there?” Her critique was not always welcome, but she always made me reflect on each point she made, and to look at it from another view.  I learned to be more empathic in a tough-love way. I am proud of the genetic counselor I became under her direction.

Fast forward to 1998. I discovered that Joan was planning to retire from Sarah Lawrence. I applied for the director position, and went through rigorous interviews.  I recall the pointed questions, some designed to make the interviewee a bit uncomfortable, as a means of gauging responses to tough situations. Even though she wasn’t in the room, it was clear that Joan was part of the process. Fortunately for me, I was selected.

Following in Joan’s footsteps was daunting.  Those early months felt exciting and overwhelming as I learned a whole new landscape.  Not surprisingly, Joan had very definitive ideas about the future of the program and often wanted to share her thoughts.  As my advisor and mentor, I made a point of responding to her calls and emails, listening to her guidance and counsel.  As it was when I was a student, I was not always in sync with her thoughts, but I learned to incorporate many of her suggestions. As I gained confidence in my role, I learned to trust my instincts and experiences to find my own personality in the position.  When in time, Joan told me that I was doing a good job, letting me know that she approved of my leadership, it meant a great deal to me.

During my tenure as program director, our relationship grew on many levels.  Joan and I grew together professionally as we worked on several commemorative events. When the program was renamed in Joan’s honor, it was a proud day for the college and the Joan H Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics.  After I moved into New York City, we grew closer personally, sharing life outside of the program.  We met for lunch and talked about some of her other interests, including art and gardening. I got to know her softer side.

Joan Marks was the most committed and passionate advocate for the genetic counseling field that I have ever known.  As Laura Hercher said, “I doubt any other single individual did as much to shape the field.”  She put the profession on the map with style, charm, directness and savvy.  It was my privilege to be her student and mentee.  It was my pleasure to be her friend.

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Orig3n of the Specious

While the world grapples with a global pandemic with enormous cost of lives and livelihoods, some companies are finding an opportunity to make a quick buck from this crisis. One such company is the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company, Orig3n, Inc. DNA Exchange readers may recall that I wrote about Orig3n a couple of years ago when I sent a swab from my dog and tap water from the kitchen sink to Orig3n for their Child Development DNA test. In both cases, Orig3n issued test reports, failing to recognize that they were not human specimens. Given this experience as well as issues raised by numerous others, I was deeply troubled when I learned that the FDA had granted Orig3n accelerated authorization for a nasal swab based RT-PCR Covid-19 test. And unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised when news broke that Orig3n is failing in their Covid-19 testing

Last Friday it was reported that Orig3n miscalled several hundred Covid-19 tests for residents and staff at multiple long term care facilities throughout Massachusetts. Upon retesting by Orig3n and by the Broad Institute, 383 tests have been determined to be false positive. Previously, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) specifically recommended Orig3n to long term care facilities and has required rigorous and widespread testing for staff and residents in order to qualify for a Covid relief funding. As of August 8th, the Massachusetts DPH has halted Orig3n from performing Covid testing citing the laboratory director’s failure in providing management and the lack of quality control measures in testing. According to Robin Smith, CEO of Orig3n, “We’re currently working with the state of MA to finalize steps that will enable us to resume testing in our Boston lab,” in a statement to the Boston Globe.

Orig3n did not only perform testing for long term care facilities in MA. They have also been lauded by public health officials for providing tests to unhoused people in the greater Boston area and have been contracted by State public health systems, schools, and long-term care facilities throughout the country. Orig3n’s Chief Executive Officer reports that the lab has processed tens of thousands of Covid-19 tests over the past 90 days. This news out of Massachusetts  may be just the beginning of the test failure story. Keep an eye on North Carolina where the state department of Health and Human Services contracted with Orig3n to provide Covid testing, setting up more than 300 test sites to increase testing access for African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian communities. In early August there were reports of a Covid surge in NC. A few days after the uptick in Covid cases was reported there, there was a news report that test results sent to Orig3n would be delayed due to “unforeseen circumstances” and that the State lab would now be performing these tests.

The fact that Orig3n has become a major provider of Covid-19 tests despite numerous prior concerns is a massive public health failure. While we desperately need access to testing, it is imperative that this testing is reliable and from a trusted source. There were significant limitations and gaps in regulation of laboratory testing prior to Covid, and the hopes that oversight of laboratory tests would improve have been dampened by a recent decision from the current administration and the United States department of Health and Human Services that premarket review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for laboratory developed tests will no longer be required. 

In 2018, after Orig3n released a test report for my dog and water from my kitchen sink for the Child Development genetic test, I filed official complaints about Orig3n with both the FDA and with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) – Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) Region 1. In these letters I outlined concerns related to the laboratory’s technical proficiency and professional oversight, the lack of clarity of how Orig3n would store and use collected biological samples, and the bioethical issues related to direct-to-consumer genetic testing marketed for children. I received responses from both agencies. From the FDA ,“We take such reports seriously, and we will evaluate this matter to determine what follow-up action is appropriate. The type and extent of any follow-up is dependent upon the nature of the problem, the possible impact on the public health, and the availability of our resources.”  And I was assured through multiple correspondence that the Massachusetts Department of Health and CLIA-Region 1 were investigating my concerns. It should be noted that I have not been alone in reporting concerns about this lab – for an excellent summary of the pre-Covid concerns, see this Businessweek article.

How is it possible that despite the many public concerns raised, Orig3n could be fast-tracked by the FDA and recommended by the MA DPH as a vendor for testing so important as Covid-19 – the same agencies that have been investigating these issues? Certainly, questions of false results should have risen to the surface as possibly “impacting public health” when the FDA was considering authorization for Covid-19 testing, right? I can only assume that in the end, FDA and CMS just did not have adequate available resources or the authority to fully investigate and consider this and other concerns raised over the years.

Orig3n has had a troubled history, but I fear that this lab’s story is just the tip of the iceberg, especially as there are really no barriers to entering the Covid-19 testing market short of being a CLIA certified laboratory (and sadly, that seems to be a pretty low bar). Today there is a long and growing list of commercial labs throwing their hats in the Covid testing arena. Many of these once focused solely on direct to consumer testing are now pivoting their focus to on the more lucrative Covid-19 testing. I am sure genetic counselors out there recognize some of the names on this list of tests who have received Emergency use Authorization by the FDA Covid-19 testing. Although all of these labs have been granted authorization, I am certain the quality of the testing among these labs is not equal. From my discussions with friends and family who have gone through Covid-19 testing, it seems that the lab that is performing a Covid-19 test is not usually made transparent to the patient. When you put your trust in your healthcare provider, school system, long-term care facility, employer, or public health officials – you may never know what lab is performing the test.

False positive and false negative tests are a possibility with any screening test. While the issue that came to light with Orig3n was false positive tests, false negative tests are also a problem with testing for Covid-19 and issues with false negative tests are probably more difficult to recognize by laboratories and public health officials given that most tests are negative. (Side note: this story highlighted a horrible situation of two women’s real health concerns being dismissed by the medical system because of false negative tests). The algorithm published by many labs is that if your test is positive, it should be treated as positive regardless of whether or not you have symptoms. But if your test is negative and you have symptoms, you should seek a second test. But is there any way you can make sure your test goes to a trustworthy lab? As a patient, is there anyway to even know for certain, what lab is performing your test?

While we are in desperate need of testing for Covid-19, we need to ensure that the available testing is reliable. Public trust in our health system and in science itself is already incredibly fragile and fast-tracking any lab that wants to get into the Covid-19 testing business will do more harm than good in the fight against this virus. We need more resources for, and empowerment of, our regulatory bodies, at both the state and federal level, to allow for review, oversight and consumer protection of laboratory testing. With time, this Covid-19 crisis will end, but the need for this type of oversight across all types of laboratory testing, including genetic testing, will not. Orig3n’s Covid-19 testing errors are a good example of the type of harm that will constantly occur without it.

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