Author Archives: Katie Stoll

Growing Pains

With the rapid growth of the genetic testing industry, professional opportunities for genetic counselors have expanded rapidly.  Not only are genetic counselors now working in nearly every area of healthcare, many are embracing new roles as laboratory specialists, clinical science liaisons, and in sales and marketing roles for genetic testing companies. Some are entrepreneurs founding their own companies and pioneering new models for access to genetic information. It’s not surprising to see genetic counselors embracing these new roles. Like the founders of our field, seeing opportunities in change and forging new trails in uncharted territory seems to be characteristic of genetic counselors.

But navigating new terrain isn’t often easy.  As written by Alexandra Minna Stern in her historical account of the profession, ”the emergence of the genetic counselor as a bona fide professional was neither inevitable nor smooth.”  

Do other genetic counselors feel that we are currently in the midst of a most turbulent and rocky stretch of our profession’s journey through time?

Although we have had graduates from Master’s level genetic counseling training programs for more than 40 years, as well as a growing body of evidence regarding the value we bring to patient care, we are still reaching for recognition as healthcare professionals. While we seem to be making progress towards this goal, we have yet to be recognized by Medicare and many commercial payers as healthcare providers. Additionally, in many states the quest for licensure remains an incredible challenge.  

One of the biggest obstacles genetic counselors currently face is public perception of genetics and genetic testing. It seems that genetic discoveries that are part of evidenced based strategies to improve human health are increasingly being overshadowed by consumer genetic testing for entertainment. For example, screening for and treating familial hypercholesterolemia is considered to be a Tier 1 genomics application by the CDC given the level of evidence and potential to benefit public health. However it is estimated that less than 1% of the affected population in the US have been diagnosed.

On the other hand, consumer genetic tests are being increasingly utilized. Home DNA test kits through companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com were among the top selling holiday gifts this year. Consumer genomic testing claims to provide information about everything from personalized skin care recommendations, to what one’s ideal fitness regimen will work best, to what one’s hypothetical future children may look like. Some companies combine a mix of evidenced based health information with unproven claims related to entertainment and wellness information which leaves many in the field of genetics uncomfortable.

As genetic counselors, we are regarded as experts when it comes to genetic testing. So how should we respond to the flood of options in the direct to consumer space?  How should we be talking about these tests with our patients?  How should we be talking about these tests with other healthcare providers?  These are crucial questions for our profession, but ones that genetic counselors don’t seem to seem to agree on.

Through the media, through our professional discussion forums, and in conversations at genetics conferences over the past couple of years, I have heard two predominant and conflicting messages regarding genetic counselors’ opinion on consumer genomic testing. Some are enthusiastic, and believe the use of such tests should be encouraged as an opportunity for to engage people in the area of genetics, and hopeful that such engagement in any genetic testing will lead to better adoption of genetics into healthcare. Some are concerned about the proliferation of these tests and believe that they may cause more harm than good by blurring the lines between medicine and entertainment, leading to misinformed health decisions, compromising privacy, and creating new and unanticipated conflict for psychosocial family dynamics.

Our field is small with only about 4,000 genetic counselors nationwide. We are all only separated by only a degree or two of separation. A tight-knit community. So it is not surprising that with our profession expanding in so many directions, that we are experiencing some tension and growing pains with these emerging issues.

Whether we believe that consumer genomics is something to be feared or embraced, these tests are out there, people are using them, and it is crucial that we adapt to be able to help the public, our patients, and each other navigate this new terrain.

Do you see consumer genomics as an area that we should encourage, participate in, and guide?  Or should genetic counselors discourage the use of these tests, both on an individual patient level and in policy?  How do you see us adapting to the brave new world of consumer genomics?  

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The Routinization of Prenatal Testing and the Erosion of Patient Autonomy

As a long time admirer, reader and guest blogger, I am thrilled to have been invited to write as a regular contributor for the DNA Exchange.  Some recent statements about prenatal testing in the news brought to mind my very first guest post on the DNA Exchange, Information Detoxification, published 5 years ago.  So I am going to start this new chapter by going back where I began as a guest blogger, on the topic of the risks of routinizing prenatal genetic testing.

 

Last week, a genetic testing lab released a statement about their intention to use recent investments “with an eye toward making expanded carrier screening as routine as taking folic acid, noninvasive prenatal screening as routine as an ultrasound, and hereditary cancer screening as well-known as a pap smear.”  While this vision is quite positive for the lab’s investors, it is concerning for the future of reproductive autonomy. The underlying goal that all pregnant women should have prenatal testing is not unique to this lab.  In fact, there is increasing pressure towards expanding the use of these tests by many labs, likely representing the intense competition in the genetic testing business right now, driving the need to increase test uptake to the largest possible market.

 

I have mixed feelings about population screening for hereditary cancer, but the implications are completely different when considering prenatal carrier and cfDNA screening.  Although prenatal testing is important to many, it is crucial that women and their partners be given the opportunity to make autonomous and informed decisions about whether or not to take these tests.  The routinization of prenatal testing is problematic for several reasons: from a social and public policy standpoint, in regards to healthcare economics, and also for individual patient care.

 

Social and Public Policy

Advocating for reproductive autonomy and informed decisions around prenatal genetic tests was one of the first guiding principles of the genetic counseling profession.  This is in part due to the fact that the start of the master’s degree trained genetic counselor coincided with social movements in women’s reproductive rights and also the emergence of the field of bioethics.

The prioritization of patient autonomy in reproductive genetics also arose from the rejection of eugenic ideology and practices that were common in the early part of the 20th century which sought to encourage reproductive of the fittest and to discourage (sometimes forcibly) reproduction among those deemed as defective or unfit.

This history supports concerns that the routinization of prenatal testing may effectively stigmatize those who have an increased chance to have a child with a genetic condition, thereby limiting reproductive freedom.  This is especially troubling in the context of the current political and social climate with so many expressing racist, xenophobic, and ableist views, as well as increasing threats to health care security and social services.

 

Healthcare Costs

Issues regarding the cost of prenatal testing are complex and studies regarding the economic impact of expanding prenatal screening are needed.  Such data analysis is complicated by the variability and a lack of transparency in the costs of these tests.  While labs vary in their pricing, patients report receiving explanation of benefits representing that the amount billed to their insurance was many thousands of dollars –  amounts that likely exceed the entire cost of the prenatal care in some cases.  

Without peeling back all of the layers on this topic, there is one clear explanation for why routinization of prenatal testing does not make good financial sense.   Given that the purpose of prenatal genetic testing is to inform personal reproductive decisions, in order for these tests to be of value, they must first be desired by the fully informed patient.  No matter the price of a prenatal genetic test, it is a needless healthcare cost if the patient does not want it.  

 

Patient Care

Should all patients be routinely counseled about their options for prenatal genetic testing?  Absolutely.  Practice guidelines for prenatal genetic testing support offering these tests to all women in the context of counseling that supports informed and value-consistent decisions.  But this conflicts with the model that the testing labs seem to be promoting, which is to test everyone first and provide the information in follow-up, after testing has already been done.  This undermines patient autonomy and can cause harm.

 

When an individual would use results to facilitate reproductive decisions, testing can be empowering. What is often overlooked in our well-intentioned goals to provide patients with knowledge however, is the potential harm and disempowerment that may result when testing information is not desired.  Patients deserve the opportunity to make a choice about whether the information these tests provide is something they want to know or not.
It is imperative of genetic counselors to resist any suggestion that reproductive genetic testing should be routine.  I hope that all of us, whether working in the clinic or the lab, will continue to advocate for reproductive autonomy for our patients and hold firm in the goal that all patients should have the opportunity to make informed choices regarding prenatal genetic tests prior to testing.   How we move forward with this challenge in both practice and policy is a defining question for our profession.

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