There has been much sturm und drang lately about the ramifications of direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing. Depending upon your point of view, either it’s the end of the world as we know it, or it’s a door opening into the future. These opinions seem to be based on, well, opinion, rather than a careful weighing of evidence – perhaps because there is no evidence.
A recent encounter with a patient who utilized DTC testing has forced me to confront my thoughts on this issue. I am purposely avoiding mentioning the name of the company – the company does not need free advertising, and the specific company does not matter to the issues at hand. I have modified the patient’s name and some personal details to be absolutely sure that anonymity is maintained.
Zoe, a bright and articulate 30-something Ashkenazi Jewish woman, called me on the advice of her primary care physician. She had no specific health problems or family history concerns, but likes to keep herself educated about health matters. She maintains a healthy life style and has long been interested in learning as much as possible about her disease risks. She does not have children, but would like to start a family in the near future. She came across the website of a DTC company that happened to be offering a special deal on their genetic screen to celebrate DNA Day. So, she and her sputum took the plunge.
The results were a mish-mash of not-particularly-helpful information such as a slightly higher risk for diabetes, slightly lower risk for cardiovascular disease, wet ear wax, and curly hair (which hung plumb-straight to her shoulders). But she didn’t call me to discuss her ability to smell asparagus metabolite in urine. Instead, right there, nestled among the results of her Measure of Intelligence and her Longevity, was a deleterious BRCA mutation.
What does this mean, she asked me over the phone? I suggested she make an appointment with me or, if she preferred, she could ask the DNA testing company if they had certified genetic counselors on staff who could work with her. The company offered her a list of genetic counselors in her area, but did not themselves employ genetic counselors. A few days later, she was in my office.
Creature of habit that I am, I began with a pedigree, but no matter how hard I shook the family tree, the only cancer that fell out was a late onset prostate cancer in a distant relative. Not surprisingly, one side of the family contained very few females. She peppered me with questions about cancer risks, screening, and prevention. She took it all in, duly taking notes and asking appropriate questions. Although the cancer risks were concerning to her, she was reassured by the availability of options to reduce her cancer risks or to improve the chances of detecting breast cancer at an early stage. She was not ready at this stage of her life to make surgical decisions. She had alerted her family to her results, and they planned to have a family meeting after she had met with me to discuss what they would do next. In short, it went pretty much like your average BRCA Positive Informing Session. She was quite satisfied with her dealings with the DTC company, and was planning on encouraging others in her social circle to consider testing as well. I sensed no significant emotional distress beyond what you would ordinarily expect.
The lab is CLIA-approved, and out-source the BRCA Ashkenazi Panel to a well-known lab. Although the patient was concerned that sputum was not as accurate as blood, I assured her that I saw no need to repeat her testing unless she wanted independent confirmation for her own peace of mind. But this would cost her about $600, and since there was no family history of cancer, it would not be covered by her insurance. The DTC lab charged her far less than that, and in her view, she received more information for less money.
For Zoe, DTC testing was a very positive experience. She received valuable information that could very well wind up saving her life. With no family history of cancer, she would not have started breast cancer screening for nearly another decade, and would likely otherwise never have pictured a risk-reducing salpingo-oophorectomy in her future. As an aside, I think it is a forceful example of the potential advantages to offering BRCA screening to all Ashkenazi women (yes, I recognize the possible downsides and intricacies too). It also partially counters the argument that we can tell patients more from pedigrees than we can from DNA tests.
Zoe was the ideal person to utilize DTC testing. She is bright, educated, and eager to improve her health and avoid disease. She had the financial means to pay for testing and counseling (neither of which were covered by her insurer). She is emotionally stable, and the information, while surprising to her, was not particularly upsetting to Zoe or (by her report) her family. While there could certainly be long-term psychosocial issues, my gut sense was that she was not at high risk for serious problems. Of course, one could easily imagine patients who might react very differently in this situation.
My criticisms of the experience are mostly minor. The written information provided by the lab about the implications of BRCA results was fairly minimal. I tried to contact the lab to ask technical questions, but the lab’s website does not offer a readily apparent Contact Us section. It took some digging around to find a general email address, and then it took the lab 2 days to reply to me. If labs and genetic counselors are going to work together, labs need to improve their communication with health professionals. The lab rep insisted that the results were not intended for medical purposes. But, come on, BRCA results can be a matter of life and death. DTC labs need to step up to the plate and clearly acknowledge that at least some of their results have very important implications for medical care beyond telling someone to exercise more, eat less, and hold your nose when you urinate after eating asparagus.
Zoe also learned that she is a carrier for a few potentially serious genetic diseases that could affect her reproductive decisions (which she found helpful). There was also the usual collection of “Self Evident Why Did They Bother Testing For This Stuff” traits like photic sneeze response, odor detection, pain sensitivity, etc. While it is easy to make fun of these, in spirit, the information is not very different than the type of information that couples seek from sperm and egg donors when going through assisted reproduction.
We need to report our experiences with patients like Zoe as case reports and with larger qualitative and quantitative studies. We have much to learn, and it can help inform policy decisions, patient experiences, and professional debates. We should not reject DTC testing outright; there are situations where it in fact it may be quite appropriate. Until we study the phenomenon, we have no right to form extreme opinions about it. Without information, it’s a an argument, not a debate.
Genetic counselors are sensitive to the psychosocial ramifications of genetic disease. But if we insist that everyone who has a genetic test first see a genetic counselor, are we creating an aura of specialness and mystery about genetics that can be a factor in the development of psychosocial sequelae? Should we be setting aside genetic testing from other medical tests and treating it as SOMETHING VERY SPECIAL? Perhaps for some patients, genetic testing is not such a big deal, but if we insist that it is a big deal, we might be contributing to some of the very psychosocial problems we are looking to minimize.
I would like to hear from other genetic counselors who have worked with patients who have gone through DTC testing – the good, the bad, and the ugly.