Category Archives: Robert Resta

Press Secretaries and Prenatal Diagnosis

The prevailing psychological paradigm views the human mind as two different interacting agencies – the unconscious and the conscious. The influence of the unconscious on the conscious mind began receiving scientific attention in the 19th century, reaching a critical juncture with Sigmund Freud’s deep dive into the murky and lurid waters of the unconscious. While many of Freud’s theories have not stood the test of time, his core concept that our unconscious mind is driven by darker instincts that our conscious mind tries to cover over is still widely accepted. And, in a sort of cosmic joke, it is extraordinarily difficult for us to know our own minds because our brains were shaped by evolution to deceive us into thinking we are good people who are conscientious members of society. We are really good at lying to, and believing, ourselves. I like the imagery employed in Kevin Simler’s and Robin Hanson’s recently published book The Elephant in The Brain that compares the conscious mind to a press secretary that tries to positively portray the less saintly aspects of the unconscious mind. Think of a governmental press secretary who has to explain a leader’s questionable statements and decisions without always being aware of what the leader is saying or doing.

So what does the deep mind and its personal Press Secretary have to do with genetic counseling? Well, a lot actually. In previous posts, I have discussed how the unconscious mind can influence genetic counselors’ perceptions of their conflicts of interest, how the pauses in a conversation between speakers can subliminally communicate meaning, and how I sometimes struggle to not let my darker thoughts insinuate themselves into my interactions with patients. In this posting, I look at the role of the unconscious mind in patients’ decisions to accept an offer of prenatal screening for Down syndrome and in deciding whether to continue a pregnancy in which a fetus has been diagnosed with this condition.

There is a common and deep negative attitude toward people with disabilities, even among their care providers, that sometimes borders on fear. Pick your reasons for this – ego threat, announcing to the world your reproductive unfitness, an assault on your concept of an ideal child and family, selfishness to prevent the loss of how you want your life to play out, rejection of those different from us. Readers more astute than I at probing the unconscious can probably think of others. This negative attitude is the driving engine of the prenatal screening train – given a choice, many people do not want to raise a child who will have significant cognitive or physical impairments. Some of this stems from misunderstanding and misinformation about disability. But decisions are typically based on the darker motives of the unconscious mind, not on information.

Here is where the Press Secretary comes in to play. People prefer not to admit to these less socially acceptable thoughts. Instead, they manufacture very plausible explanations to justify their decisions. Mind you, I am not implying that people are liars, hypocrites, or morally derelict. Rather, the unconscious mind usually rules the roost and leaves it to the Press Secretary to put a positive spin on it. This is how the human mind works, and it is crucial to understanding how patients make difficult and morally ambiguous decisions. It is like a role reversal in the Wizard of Oz.* Professor Marvel, Acclaimed by the Crown Heads of Europe, isn’t behind the curtain. Instead, the flaming, smoking, blustering, self-important gigantic head of The Great and Terrible Oz is back there. Oz doesn’t have the heart or courage to fight the Wicked Witch of the West and manipulates Professor Marvel to impart the task to Dorothy the Small and Meek (and, yes, Toto too). Professor Marvel is a bad wizard trying to pass himself off as a good man.

 

For example, what I often heard from patients as an underlying reason for a decision to proceed with testing or terminations shifted the focus from darker to more personally and socially acceptable reasons:

  • “We wouldn’t want our other children to bear the burden of caring for a disabled sibling after we are gone.”
  • “It would be unfair to our other children if we had to devote so much attention to a disabled sibling.”
  • “My doctor thinks it is the right thing to do and really wants me to have the test.”
  • “The world can be cruel to people who are different. I remember how a boy with Down syndrome was mercilessly teased in my neighborhood when I was growing up. I would not want to put my child through that.”
  • “It would put too much of a strain on our marriage. I know I could deal with it, but it would be devastating to my spouse.”
  • “I want to take advantage of advances in medical testing and information to make sure my baby is healthy.”

As a counselor, there is nothing to be gained from criticizing any of these as being invalid justifications. Indeed there is a measure of truth to them that provides plausibility. Patients are not concocting nonsense reasons or blatant falsehoods. But they also transform the less desirable urges of the unconscious mind into a message that allows the conscious mind to maintain its self-image of a Good Person and to avoid the negative judgment of family, friends, and social networks. On top of this, a well-oiled medical and economic machinery capitalizes on negative attitudes toward disability and reinforces the idea that prenatal screening is a wise choice for responsible parents.

This also has implications for critics of prenatal testing who claim that if pregnant women better understood the quality of the lives of people with disabilities, then more people would reject prenatal screening. This is true only to an extent. The unconscious mind is not usually persuaded by mere facts and will ignore them, reframe “truth” to make it more compatible with the motives of the unconscious, or filter out the parts that it doesn’t want to hear. Bias against physically and cognitively different people is found in all cultures and over time, though there is variation as to which conditions are the focus of a society’s prejudices and fears. People with albinism have been traditionally well-integrated into Hopi society and often play special roles in ceremonial dances; in parts of Africa they fear for their lives. Education alone is unlikely to alter attitudes. Change will require large-scale cultural shifts in views towards specific disabilities and conditions.

Unless we appreciate how the unconscious mind drives behavior and choices, we will never understand our patients – or ourselves.


  • – The day after I drafted an early version of this posting, I came across the same allusion to the Wizard of Oz in Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal – How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your BehaviorIncidentally, in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, Professor Marvel explains that his full name is Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs, the acronym of which is OZPINHEAD. In yet one more example of bias towards people with disabilities, he chose his name by using the first two letters of that acronym – Oz – and dropping the “pinhead” part.

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When Perfection Causes Imperfection: A Potential Non-Genomic Complication Of Germline Editing

There is wide consensus that we should not only treat but also try to cure genetic conditions that cause profound suffering. CRISPR and related technologies have descended on us like a deus ex machina from the heavens and made it possible to “cure” genetic diseases through germline editing. Precision molecular microsurgery has stimulated provocative discussions about which diseases are serious, where we draw the line, the acceptance of people who are different in appearance and abilities, increasing the disparities between wealthy and poor, religious concerns, etc. I don’t have any helpful insights into these issues but I hope that vigorous debate continues and that if germline editing becomes a reality, we proceed veeerrrrrryyyyy slowly, cautiously, and incrementally.

The more ardent “germline utopians” envision a world where all fertilized embryos undergo germline editing to prevent the resulting offspring from developing genetic disorders. Of course, this will never happen universally. Even in a fantasy world of full acceptance of, and unrestricted access to, germline editing, pregnancies have a habit of, well, happening on their own. But for argument’s sake, let’s make the unlikely assumption that many parents will utilize germline editing to prevent their children from developing genetic conditions. Given that Western societies place great value on individual autonomy and considering the conditions that are currently screened for through prenatal diagnosis and carrier screening, it is likely that prospective parents would choose to “correct” traits ranging in severity from hearing loss to profound physical and developmental disorders, and all points in between. And to twist the complexity we might see the reverse scenario where deaf parents choose to “correct” a hearing-abled embryo. Should genetic enhancement – adding a few IQ points, tacking on centimeters of height, a slimmer habitus, Faye Dunaway zygomatics – become a reality then a goodly number of parents will take advantage of that as well (please I hope never because it will bring out the worst in us).

Of course, this model of genetic disease prevention depends on whether the technique actually works and that it is safe. There is reason to believe that germline editing and “correction” of genetic conditions are technically achievable. Safety, however, is more open to question. Off-target genetic effects, among other safety issues, could relegate germline editing to the What If category of debate.

But let’s posit a world where efficacy is proven and off-target effects are negligible. There would still be another safety issue, unrelated to genomics. Germline microsurgery requires in vitro fertilization/intracyoplasmic sperm injection (IVF/ICSI) in order to gain access to the gamete or the fertilized egg and to achieve a pregnancy. And therein lies the rub – IVF/ICSI is associated with a higher risk of complications in singleton and multiple gestations, such as prematurity, low birthweight, small for gestational age, perinatal mortality, and congenital anomalies. It reminds me of the introduction of a phenylalanine-restricted diet to reduce the impact of PKU that eventually created the phenomenon of maternal PKU, in which maternal hyperphenylalaninemia produced babies with microcephaly, heart defects, and intellectual disabilities. The attempt to cure one problem can create a whole new set of problems.

Now maybe the complications of IVF/ICSI are in part due to the underlying causes of the parental infertility, and thus fertile couples may have lower complication rates. Maybe. Perhaps IVF/ICSI will become safer. Perhaps. Still, it is likely that some parents will be willing to accept the risks of pregnancy complications in return for not having a child with Tay-Sachs disease or severe ichthyosis. But are the pregnancy risks worth it to prevent genetic hearing loss, increase a child’s IQ, or create a child with movie star beauty?

You might understandably say “My God, we finally have the chance to prevent serious genetic problems and improve people’s lives. How can we not take advantage of it? We are just trying to do good in a world full of suffering.” Indeed, the goal of reducing suffering is as old as the field of Medical Genetics. But when we march beneath the banners of Cure, Good Intentions, and Highly Ethical Motivations, and throw in an unhealthy dose of hubris, our enthusiasm may blind us to the harm that we might do. Perfection comes with a price.

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Work Shift: A (Wrong?) Prediction

Genetic counselors are engaging in a bit of preening now that CareerCast has listed our profession as the top-rated career for 2018. Actually, it’s a bit of history repeating itself. Back in 1980, the genetics equivalent of The Neolithic, I learned about the profession when I came across an article in Working Woman magazine (now defunct, and not to be confused with Working Women magazine, which is still in circulation) touting the top 10 careers for the modern woman of the 1980s. My other time-killing choices that day were People, Reader’s Digest, and Ranger Rick. If I had picked up a different magazine, well, just imagine Ranger Robert. Funny how our lives play out.  Incidentally, even today, National Society of Genetic Counselor (NSGC) membership is 95% female, so that article in Working Woman really had its finger on the socioeconomic pulse.

Ranger Robert. Graphics by Emily Singh

 

The CareerCast story appeared just a few weeks after the publication of the latest Professional Status Survey (PSS) by the NSGC. The two pieces got me to thinking about historical changes in the employment picture of the profession and eventually, perhaps after a beer or two, a prediction popped into my head about a trending shift in who employs genetic counselors. I am not the first to notice the trend, so my contribution is to suggest the extreme to which the trend will run as well as its implications.

My prediction is that within the next 5-10 years, a significant majority of US genetic counselors will be employed  by laboratories and other biotech firms, in both patient contact and non-contact roles, and, to a lesser extent, by private practice groups that offer their services over the Internet or whatever communication technology is predominant in 2025. Until about a decade or so ago, the vast majority of genetic counselors were employed by private and academic medical centers. This is still true; if I am interpreting the 2018 PSS correctly, about 2/3 of genetic counselors are employed by medical centers, public hospitals, HMOs, private hospitals, and physician private practices. However, there were also changes in the percentage employed by laboratories and biotechs. In 2010, 10.5% of genetic counselors were employed by labs and biotechs. By 2018, that percentage more than doubled to 22.5%, and another 2% of genetic counselor were employed by telegenetics companies in 2018 (the 2010 PSS did not have an equivalent category). In other words, about a quarter of the current genetic counseling workforce is employed by labs, biotechs, and telegenetics companies.

There are several factors driving this trend. First off, more laboratories are offering direct genetic counseling services to patients and thus need to hire more counselors  – Counsyl and its new owner Myriad Genetics, Color Genomics, LabCorp, and Invitae, to name a few. Second, salaries of laboratory genetic counselors are typically a good 20% higher (plus more to be made in bonuses and stock options) than those offered by medical centers, making labs more enticing to prospective employees. Third, more medical centers and large medical practices are looking to include genetic counseling among the services they provide to their patients. Since genetic counselors don’t typically generate enough income to pay their costs, medical centers may be relieved to have a laboratory provide genetic counseling to their patients, either on site or via telegenetics. Clinics would bear minimal costs and labs would get a pipeline for specimens. This in turn will create a competitive environment among labs to offer their genetic counseling services to more clinics to ensure they maintain reasonable share of the testing market. A lesser trend will be the growth of telegenetic services offered by dedicated telegenetic counseling companies and individual private practitioners (together, currently 2.2% of genetic counselors). I suspect this latter group will be limited in its employment share, in part because they will have a hard time competing with the deeper pockets of large corporations. The net effect will be that the percentage of genetic counselors employed by medical centers will decrease significantly.

A natural extension of this trend is that bigger labs will continue to swallow smaller labs, and mega-corporations will swallow the bigger labs. Its hard to fight economy of scale. Konica Minolta owns Ambry Genetics. Eventually BGI may get in on the act (then watch out!). Heck, it’s not out of the question that many genetic counselors could one day work for Amazon (see my posting Sour Grapes, a dystopian satire about this possibility).

Both good and bad will emerge from these trends. More patients will have access to genetic counseling through telegenetics, whether from labs or dedicated genetic counseling companies. With genetic counselors on staff, labs and medical centers can be confident that testing is ordered and interpreted appropriately, improving patient care and reducing economic waste. More career opportunities will open up for genetic counselors as corporations recognize their skills and smarts. Salaries and other benefits will likely become more generous.

There is plenty to worry about too, at least for professional fretters like me. With more mergers and acquisitions, there will be fewer employers of genetic counselors and so the field will lose some of its practice diversity. Employers will expect their employees to adhere to certain business practices and philosophies unique to each employer. Practice diversity has been a rich source and testing ground for new and different ways to conduct genetic counseling. More concerning to me is the potential loss of  carefully considered patient decisions about whether to undergo a genetic test. Acquisitions and mergers are driven by the desire to increase market share and market penetration, not by an altruistic urge to ensure that patients carefully consider the benefits, downsides, and psychological impact of genetic testing (although undoubtedly labs support the right of each patient to make independent decisions). This will become even more concerning  as labs are subsumed by larger corporate entities that are further removed from the practice of medicine and the ethos of genetic counselors, generating real concerns about conflicts of interest. Another possibility is that large labs will either set up or help finance genetic counseling training programs. Why not have a steady source of prospective employees who can be trained to develop skills and a counseling approach that are shaped to a particular corporate milieu?

I acknowledge that this is a very America-centric view of the genetic counseling profession. This trend may not play out to the same degree, or at all, in other countries. On the other hand, telegenetics knows no borders. Conseil Gènètique Sans Frontières. Governments are looking for ways to cut health care spending in the UK, Canada, and Australia, among others. International mega-corporations – Big Genoma – can offer enticing cost-savings to legislators looking to reduce expenses without increasing taxes.

Of course, like most prophets and self-appointed pundits, my predictions will be off, and perhaps even laughably so. The thing about the future is that nobody knows what it’s going to be like. So if you disagree with me, or are outraged by my thoughts, take solace in knowing that I will likely be wrong yet again. But I think there is enough meat on this bone that it’s worth chewing over.

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Is Test Uptake A Good Measure of Genetic Counseling Effectiveness? I Don’t Think So

The last few years have seen a growing trend for patients to undergo genetic testing without first seeing a genetic counselor or other genetic specialist. As I have commented before, genetic counselors are no longer the gatekeepers of genetic testing. Anyone can obtain DNA analysis through non-genetics specialists or any health care provider, on Amazon.com and other internet sites, and at their workplaces (which, honestly, makes me very uneasy; it is going to be awfully difficult for some employers to keep their noses out of their employees’ genetic information and it may provide an opportunity to chisel away at the protections afforded by GINA). Many genetic counselors have accepted this as a fact of life, even if we are not altogether comfortable with it.

Historically, the genetic counseling profession has done a poor job of demonstrating its value to the health care system. Our importance seemed pretty obvious to us and because we didn’t have much in the way of competition we were never strongly motivated to undertake large scale studies to prove our worth.

Comparative studies are starting to address the value of pre-test counseling by a genetic counselor, particularly in the field of hereditary cancer genetic testing. This as a good thing.  Still, it bothers me if studies claim that genetic counseling is failing patients because fewer people undergo genetic testing if they need to see a genetic counselor first. Sure, genetic testing should be readily available to those who need it, and barriers need to be removed. If seeing a genetic counselor turns out to be one of those barriers, then we need to do something about that. But test uptake may not always be in the best interests of patients.

For example, the most common reason an unaffected patient declines genetic testing after seeing me for hereditary cancer counseling is that, for the moment, they are the “wrong” person to test to most accurately determine their hereditary cancer risks. Even though the patient may technically meet standard criteria for genetic testing, they may still not be the best person to test within the context of their specific family history. Not undergoing genetic testing is not due to a lack of timely access to me, the cost of my services, or me somehow talking them out of testing. Instead, after reviewing their family history, it turns out that testing their mother with breast cancer or their brother with colon cancer is the most appropriate person to test before deciding if the patient and other unaffected relatives should undergo testing. If that affected relative has a normal genetic test result, then testing my patient and other relatives is usually a waste of money.

It is also difficult to interpret a negative test result in a family where a mutation has not already been identified. Now, I am a grizzled veteran of the Family Dynamics Wars, and I realize that sometimes that affected relative is deceased or just not willing to undergo testing, and you have to make do with the realities of the situation at hand. And, of course, this argument does not apply to testing patients who have been diagnosed with cancer (although it may apply in situations where patients meet NCCN guidelines but not their insurer’s criteria for coverage, but an affected relative does meet their insurer’s criteria). Still, testing an affected relative should be utilized whenever feasible because it is clinically and economically the most effective strategy. Therefore, if a study finds that test uptake is increased when patients do not first see a genetic counselor, the researchers are obliged to demonstrate that this is not simply due to more cases of the “wrong” person being tested or the providers not willing to take the time to work with the extended family.

Along these same lines, in many situations, even genetic test results of an affected relative are often uninformative for risk assessment. Such families may still need to be followed as high risk, with screening and risk reducing protocols based on family history and clinician judgment. Effectiveness studies therefore need to investigate whether there are differences in clinical recommendations provided to patients who see a genetic counselor compared to those who do not.

Studies of genetic counseling vs. no genetic counseling also need to provide data on patient adherence to screening and other risk reduction guidelines. Increased test uptake is not particularly helpful if patients do not have the motivation or wherewithal to undergo breast MRI, salpingo-oophorectomy, join the Annual Colonoscopy For Life Club, or whatever else is recommended. Other outcomes that effectiveness studies should address include communication of test results to family members, interpretation of variants of uncertain significance, and patients’ psychological adaptation to their risk status. I imagine many of you reading this posting can suggest additional outcomes that need to be addressed.

My other concern about reduced genetic counselor involvement with pre-test counseling is that “counseling” will eventually be reduced to a pamphlet or a brief video, perhaps provided by the testing lab itself. This is already a major concern with how NIPT is presented to pregnant women, and I can see it becoming a problem in other areas of genetic testing. No matter how earnestly labs may claim that their educational material is not a subtle sales pitch, they are only human and can easily be blinded by their business needs. This is an area where GCs can develop better and less biased educational materials.

If research demonstrates that other genetic testing delivery models are more effective than, or at least non-inferior to (non-inferior sounds like a back-handed compliment,doesn’t it?), the traditional approach of First See A GC Before Your Test, then the genetic counseling profession should re-focus itself and use our many other skills to work towards improving patients’ lives and the medical care system. Besides, I have never liked conflating genetic counseling with genetic testing.

I do worry, though, that either the research will not be conducted, or that, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, market forces will dictate testing strategies. I am not concerned that it would portend the end of the genetic counseling profession. Genetic counselors are forever expanding their professional roles, and in fact have continually reinvented themselves since, well, we first invented ourselves in the 1970s. Like David Bowie, we never stood still and as soon as you had us pinned down as Ziggy Stardust, all of a sudden we were Aladdin Sane, and already sprouting within him are the seeds of The Thin White Duke (well, okay, it’s a stretch comparing genetic counselors to David Bowie, but you get my point). What matters is that all patients affected with or at risk for hereditary disorders receive the most competent and compassionate care delivered effectively, equitably, and timely.

Bobbin Sane
(Graphic by Emily Singh)

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Medical Strategy or Marketing Strategy?

A well-known direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing company now has FDA approval to include a very limited form of BRCA testing with its DNA genotyping product. I refrain from mentioning the company’s name because they already got enough free press from the announcement. You probably know what company I am referring to, and if you don’t, well, follow the above link. Sorry Unnamed Company, but I am not going to make the free advertising that easy for you, no matter how insignificant the source. Besides, I see it as a bigger issue than just one company’s policy.

For now, the analysis is limited to the three BRCA1&2 mutations that are more common among Ashkenazi Jews. Actually, the company offered the same 3 mutation test until they were slapped with a cease and desist letter from FDA in 2013 to stop all medically related testing. So this new announcement amounts to a resurrection of a nearly decade-old policy, not a groundbreaking innovation. Funny, though, that there was not this much to-do when the test was first offered.

The genetic counseling community is in a bit of a dither about this, including me, though admittedly part of the reason I am writing this blogpost is to help me figure out just what I am dithering about.

Some of the concerns are obvious. People may be under the misconception that a negative result = no increased risk of hereditary breast/ovarian cancer and thus some high risk women may forego potentially lifesaving surgery and appropriate screening strategies. Then there is the worry that patients will not follow through with genetic counseling if the testing is positive, or that high risk patients will not seek genetic counseling and more testing if the result is negative. If you are not Ashkenazi Jewish, the test does not seem to offer much benefit. And even for Ashkenazi Jews, the testing does not include the ~10 other genes linked to hereditary breast cancer and the ~10 other genes linked to hereditary ovarian cancer.

The company recommends verifying positive results with an experienced clinical lab.  For that matter, then, why not verify a negative result, if there is that much uncertainty? Why bother having a test if you can’t fully trust the result? I suspect though that there is probably little reason to doubt the test result and that the company makes this recommendation to keep FDA happy and to minimize their legal exposure rather than concerns about assay validity.

Incidentally, the cost of the company’s product is really not much different than the more comprehensive multigene hereditary cancer panels offered by some of the clinical testing labs, and in some cases more expensive.

Eight years ago I shared my first experience with a patient whose BRCA carrier status was detected through DTC testing. My patient’s experience and a few more cases I encountered since then have not been that different than my patients who went through the usual counseling and testing process. A 2013 study by the company  showed that the 11 women and 14 men who discovered their BRCA status through DTC testing had experiences similar to my patients. That last statement is brimming with caveats – small sample size, at least for my patients they were savvy enough to want to see a genetic counselor, personality traits of the earliest users of new products, no long-term follow-up, etc. But I am not aware of any independent, large-scale studies of patients who learned their BRCA status through DTC testing to more definitively address the pros and cons, other than studies offering BRCA testing that targeted all Ashkenazi Jewish women.

I readily admit that I may be proven wrong, but I am guessing that most of the consumers of this DTC product – note they are not patients because the test is not intended for clinical use – will opt to learn their BRCA status. After all, people have this testing to learn about their genetic makeup. I am also guessing that this may be the company’s proverbial toe-in-the-water; I would not be at all surprised if additional clinically useful testing is part of the company’s future product and marketing plans.

At heart, I don’t like the idea of DTC BRCA testing. I think about all the ways it can go wrong, and inevitably some of those ways will come to pass. But will it go right often enough, and go wrong infrequently enough, that there will be adequate benefit to justify offering DTC testing? Undoubtedly, some of my uneasiness stems from a professional conflict of interest; DTC eliminates my role as an interface between patients and testing. Personally, I think being a middleman is a good thing because it can help patients take a thoughtful deep breath before leaping into the gene pool. But that could be because I have been trained to think that way and because it supports the value of my professional career. What I really should want is for patients to have access to genetic information in a manner that is affordable, accurate, psychologically and emotionally appropriate, and medically useful. If DTC and other forms of offering BRCA testing works for many men and women, then I should swallow my professional pride and acknowledge it.

So having stewed on this for a while, I have come to the realization that my argument isn’t with this company per se. Other companies aggressively market hereditary cancer and other genetic testing to average risk people. For example, one company approached my institution with the idea of offering their product to all women coming in for breast imaging, with saliva kits kept in the mammography center along with a prescription pad with a genetic counselor’s name on it acting as an ordering provider for the test (legal in my state). Although many labs employ genetic counselors who work directly with patients to review test results, this is still not the same experience as meeting with a genetic counselor before undergoing testing to explore the complex medical and psychological issues surrounding genetic testing. And the highly respected Dr. Mary-Claire King has advocated for population based genetic screening for establishing hereditary breast cancer risk. Are DTC clinical testing and other consumer-friendly strategies disruptive ideas that will bring about much-needed change or are they just bad but well-intentioned ideas that will also fill company’s coffers and keep investors happy?

Having sifted through and weighed my thoughts and feelings about DTC testing or other genetic test delivery models, I have concluded that my problem is not with DTC or other models per se. My argument is with how these new testing approaches are introduced into clinical practice, typically under some version of the banner of liberating testing and bringing it to the people. I do not doubt the labs’ sincerity when they say they are trying to improve access to medical care and reduce the suffering from cancer and other illnesses. But these are as much marketing strategies as they are medical strategies. Labs should not be calling the shots on the introduction of new tests and practice models because, in the absence of well designed studies, we really have no idea if these new approaches are effective in reducing cancer risks and increasing high risk screening when indicated, or if they are in the patients’ best emotional and psychological interests. Just throwing a mess of tests out there and encouraging everyone to take one is, in my view, irresponsible.

A better approach is to first conduct controlled and ideally randomized studies that evaluate both new and novel testing strategies to determine the most beneficial one(s) for patients, or if different types of patients benefit differently from different strategies. For example, age, family history, medical history, psychological functioning, and socio-economic status could all conceivably affect outcomes, not too mention the all too real possibility that many Americans may lose health insurance in the near future. While labs should play a critical role in that evaluative process, to keep it as clean as possible the studies need to be conducted and overseen by researchers who have no financial benefit from the outcomes of such studies.

We are in this together, so let’s work together.

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Is A Lab A Health Care Professional? An Update On “Everyone’s Worst Nightmare”

Two years ago I authored a blogpost, Everyone’s Worst Nightmare , about a family’s experience with genetic variant interpretation, communication (or lack of) by healthcare providers with families, and an outcome that couldn’t be more tragic – the death of a child. Here I am providing an update on the legal status of the lawsuit brought on behalf of the child by his mother. In my original posting, I did not identify the child’s syndrome or the specific court case. However, since then, the story has been picked up by a variety of media outlets (Turna Ray at GenomeWeb has done the best reporting on the details) and it now being a matter of public record, I have included some particulars here .

Briefly, the story began about 12 years ago when the child was experiencing multiple, intractable seizures and had a clinical picture consistent with Dravet syndrome. Unbeknownst to the parents, genetic testing was ordered and the child was found to carry a mutation in SCN1A, the gene linked to Dravet syndrome. The mutation was interpreted as a variant of uncertain significance, though at the time there was reason to believe that it could be pathogenic. Based on the genetic test result, it was felt that the child did not have Dravet syndrome and was kept on a sodium channel blocker, which unfortunately is contra-indicated for patients with this syndrome. Not long afterwards the child died of seizures at the age of two.

The patient did not find out that genetic testing had been performed until about 7 years after the test was ordered. Shortly after the mother learned of the test result and inquired into its meaning, the lab reclassified the variant as pathogenic.

In February 2016 the mother initiated a lawsuit on behalf of her deceased child in the fifth judicial circuit court in Richland County, South Carolina. The defendant’s lawyers requested that the case be dismissed on the grounds of restrictions imposed by the state’s statute of repose, i.e., a law that states legal action must be initiated within a certain period from the time the alleged offense occurred (it is similar to but slightly different from a statute of limitations). The defendants presented the argument that a genetic testing laboratory is a licensed health care provider and South Carolina has a 3 year statute of repose for lawsuits brought against licensed health care providers. Since the events took place a decade ago, the defendants asserted that the case should be dismissed. The plaintiff countered that, under South Carolina state law, a genetic testing lab that is separate from a hospital or a clinic cannot be considered a licensed health care provider and therefore the statute of repose did not apply. The plaintiff contended that this is a case of ordinary negligence, not medical malpractice, since the lab should not be considered a licensed health care provider and therefore the suit should be allowed to proceed.

The case was then sent to the US District Court in 2017 to rule on whether dismissal was warranted based on the defendant’s argument that the lab is a licensed health care provider and therefore the statue of repose applies. The federal judge then referred the case to the South Carolina Supreme Court to, as the legal lingo goes, certify the question of whether a lab can be considered a licensed health care provider under the specific provisions of South Carolina Code of Laws Section 38-79-410. Although we may have our individual opinions on this question, it is strictly a matter of law that varies by state. South Carolina law defines a licensed health care provider as “physicians and surgeons; directors, officers, and trustees of hospitals; nurses; oral surgeons; dentists; pharmacists; chiropractors; optometrists; podiatrists; hospitals; nursing homes; or any similar category of licensed health care providers.” (italics added)

The South Carolina Supreme Court heard the case on February 14th, 2018. For those of you who have never witnessed a state Supreme Court hearing, I recommend that you watch the ~40 minute video of the session. The court’s decision, which will be about whether the suit can proceed rather than determining liability, will depend on how it interprets whether a laboratory is a “similar category” to the health professionals listed in the state code. I thought that the five justices were insightful and asked thoughtful questions. As a side note, at about the 29-30 minute mark of the hearing, Justice Few gives a shout out to our genetics colleagues at the Greenwood Genetics Center.

The court does not have a set date on when they will issue an opinion; as the Supremes, they call that shot (the South Carolina Supreme Court’s motto is Nil ultra, which roughly translates as “Nothing is above us”). Typically, though, the time frame on a ruling is in weeks or months. If the court decides that the lab is not a healthcare provider, then the plaintiff’s suit will be allowed to continue, though I got the sense that the court felt that even if the ruling were in favor of the defendants that the plaintiff may still have alternate legal pathways to pursue a case. I will keep the good readers of The DNA Exchange posted on important developments in this case, which I suspect will continue to drag on for some time after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

With the rapid expansion of genetic testing in the clinical and consumer spaces, and the growing involvement of non-genetics professionals in ordering genetic testing, bad clinical outcome scenarios are likely to become more common. Critical questions about variant interpretation and legal liability aside, from a genetic counseling standpoint, this case highlights the importance of clear and ongoing communication with patients and their families about the limits and clinical interpretation of genetic testing. This can be extraordinarily difficult when a family is trying to cope with caring for a child with a life-threatening disease, but genetic counselors are trained to work precisely in those situations. Genetic testing may be simple to order and widely available but it benefits no one without good clinical care and counseling.

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The Rhythms of Silence

“It was a silence filled with many things going on in it.”

– Dorothy Parker

Shut my mouth.  That is one of the hardest things for me to do during a genetic counseling session, though paradoxically it is among the simplest. Despite decades of experience as a genetic counselor, I still have a tendency to dominate my interactions with patients. Maybe all of us are guilty of this to varying degrees. To some extent, it is a natural by-product of a clinical service with a significant educational component. Dialogue easily morphs into monologue.

But genetic counseling does not end at education. Instead the counseling component simultaneously flows from and shapes the educational aspects. I sometimes need a virtual dopeslap upside my head from Jon Weil’s or Seymour Kessler’s spiritual avatar to get things back on track.

How We Talk, a book about conversational analysis by the linguist N.J. Enfield, has helped heighten my awareness of my tendency to dominate counseling sessions. And it is a lot less psychologically painful than Jon’s or Seymour’s dopeslaps.

A typical conversation flows with a rhythm guided by timing cues. Speaker A says something and then Speaker B seamlessly follows with a response to what Speaker A just said, and so the conversational turn-taking flows through to the conclusion of the conversation. In normal everyday conversation the average length of the transition between when Speaker A stops speaking and Speaker B responds is ~200 milliseconds. Literallly in the blink of an eye Speaker B recognizes that it is the appropriate time to speak and has a response ready. The brevity of the silence interval is mute testimony to the stunning complexity of the human brain. Conversation is like a John Cage musical composition based on a pattern of silences. Silence is to conversation as zero is to numbers.

Of course, there are within- and between- individual variations in any conversation. There are also differences between languages, but the differences are slight. For example, in the Mayan language Tzeltal, the average transition time is 67 milliseconds, in Italian it is 310 milliseconds, in Lao it is 420 milliseconds, and in Danish it is 470 milliseconds. English is just above average at 236 milliseconds. No doubt a Dane would drive a Tzeltal speaker crazy with the extended transition time, but the difference between the languages is under half a second, within the range of an eye blink.

The dialogue from the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s move along at dizzying speed because we perceive the transition times as almost non-existent. The great screenwriters intuitively understood this and Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, et al., effortlessly deliver witty repartee that leaves your brain gasping for breath.

When the transition time exceeds a half second, and especially as it approaches one second, Speaker A perceives the response as taking too long and tends to jump back into the conversation, “out of turn.” This One Second Rule is called a standard maximum silence. It is often more than a matter of Speaker B needing more time to formulate a response to a complex statement or question. The longer than expected delay can communicate that Speaker B thinks the response is “non-preferred,” that is, something that Speaker B feels may not be the reply that Speaker A wants to hear. And when Speaker A jumps in out of turn, Speaker A will re-phrase in a way that makes it easier for Speaker B to give a non-preferred response. Subtle non-verbal emotional interplay takes place in the space of a silent second. The silence of the iambs. The following fictional counseling scenario demonstrates this:

Scenario A

Counselor: So, do you think you want to undergo this genetic test?

(1 second pause)

Counselor: You don’t have to make up your mind right now.

(800 millisecond pause)

Client: Well, the test could be helpful. I am not sure about my insurance coverage, though.

Here, the 1 second pause suggests that the patient may not want the test, and the “long” pause pushes the counselor to jump in and say something that makes it easier for the patient to decline testing. The patient replies in a way that that the patient feels the counselor prefers to hear – the test is important – but bringing up insurance coverage gives the patient a “legitimate” reason to decline testing. Even though the counselor may feel that she or he was non-directive, the patient may have picked up on a message that perhaps the counselor thinks the patient should undergo testing, even if the counselor is not saying it in so many words.

Generally, Yes/No responses that occur within the first half second of a transition are perceived as more definitive whereas responses that are closer to one second or longer are usually interpreted as ambiguous. The following fictional exchanges between a counselor and a client illustrate this:

Scenario B

Counselor: So, do you think you want to undergo this genetic test?

(200 millisecond pause)

Client: Yes.

 

Scenario C

Counselor: So, do you think you want to undergo this genetic test?

(1 second pause)

Client: Um (3oo millisecond pause) it might be a good idea.

In Scenario B, the short transition time of the client’s response suggests a strong desire to have testing. However, in Scenario C, it takes the client 1.3 seconds to arrive at a form of Yes, the hesitancy in the response possibly reflecting a hesitancy to undergo testing. The interjection “Um” before saying “Yes” reinforces the perception of ambiguity. This 1+ second difference in transition time is a clue to skilled counselors to more deeply investigate the patients’ desires and reasoning, even though the counselors and the clients may not be consciously aware that clients are communicating clues to their ambiguity.

Of course, in the context of a counseling session, a delayed response could be due to the cognitive processing required to comprehend technical medical information or it could be due to psychological processing of an emotionally laden discussion. Which, to some extent, is the point here. A genetic counseling session is not usually an ordinary conversation (though a skilled counselor can make it appear that way), so the turn-taking of the speakers can be expected to have a different rhythm and follow different timing cues. But because we are so subconsciously attuned to the rhythm of normal conversation, the tendency for genetic counselors to sometimes dominate a session may stem in part from relying on the wrong timing cues and to speak out of turn before patients are ready to articulate their thoughts.

An interesting research project would be to record counseling sessions with the purpose of timing transitions between counselor and client. This could then be correlated with outcomes such as patient satisfaction and uptake of recommendations to see if they were influenced by conversational transitions. Transition times could also be used to guide the development of better counseling skills by helping the counselor to understand ways that transition times were used appropriately or inappropriately during the course of a counseling session.

To be sure, transition times are not the only non-verbal influence on the rhythm of a conversation. Posture, gestures, facial expressions, and eye gaze can influence the flow of conversations and serve to articulate the psyche. Reading the body of clients is as important a skill as being attuned to their verbal language. People are generally less aware of their body language and thus it can more “honestly” and directly reveal underlying psychological and emotional processes than verbal language.

It is extraordinarily difficult to be keyed into what Enfield calls “the inner workings of conversation,” especially in the moment of the conversation. It involves unlearning, or more precisely becoming aware of and being able to manipulate, a language protocol that has been subconsciously engrained into us since we burst out of our amniotic sacs. Becoming a good counselor is not simple nor is the path always straight. The graph of professional growth follows a jagged and at times recursive line. There is no breakthrough moment when you permanently become the genetic counseling equivalent of a Jedi Master, able to manipulate the Counseling Force to your will and you are infused with Yoda-like wisdom. Easy it is not.

 

 

 


Thanks yet again to Emily Singh for help with graphics.

 

 

 

 


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