Guest Post: Letter to the Editor, CNN

Suzanna Schott has been a prenatal and pediatric outreach genetic counselor in New Mexico for the last 4 years.  She was trained at JHU-NHGRI, and prior to that was a graphic designer in Atlanta, Georgia, her home town.  She is interested in representations of genetics in the media, and is a frequent writer of letters to the editor.

Ms. Elizabeth Cohen

Senior Medical Correspondent

CNN

Dear Ms. Cohen,

As a genetic counselor, it is my job to advocate for patients and families, help them interpret complex scientific information, consider the personal and ethical implications of genetic testing, and facilitate difficult medical decision-making.  I therefore appreciate your efforts to raise awareness of public health genetic screening practices and potential concerns about privacy and misuse (Elizabeth Cohen, “The government has your baby’s DNA,” cnn.com February 4, 2010.)  However, I was very concerned to see serious misinformation in your report about the nature of the screening and the potential risks involved.

I agree that parents have legitimate concerns about consent, privacy and potential misuse of testing samples.  Unfortunately, your report provided very few facts or evidence relevant to whether privacy violations and surreptitious testing have actually occurred.  Instead, your story sensationalized unrelated and unfounded concerns, which I am afraid will unduly influence families to avoid a test that can actually save lives.  Indeed, based on the online public comments, your article has left many readers ready to believe that every aspect of newborn screening is an illicit and irresponsible ploy by the government.  I must take issue with three assumptions in your report that I think led to these misunderstandings.

First, you suggest that newborn screening will identify children with diseases that would not otherwise be diagnosed, putting a permanent blemish in the medical record that could have been avoided.  Unfortunately, the fact is that the conditions detected on the newborn screen are typically so severe that even without newborn screening, an affected child would eventually require significant medical treatment resulting in the diagnosis in the medical record.  The problem with delaying diagnosis until symptoms appear is that it is often too late at that point for medical intervention to make a real difference. Babies with these conditions may appear healthy and normal at birth, while irreversible damage is silently occurring in the brain and other organs.

The second assumption that you make is that identification of these diseases puts children at risk for insurance or employment discrimination.  While genetic discrimination is a theoretical risk, I believe that your report grossly exaggerates this possibility.  Again, a diagnosis based on newborn screening is no more likely to result in discrimination than a diagnosis based on symptoms.  It is true that newborn screening can sometimes identify individuals who only carry a genetic difference associated with a disease, but are not affected with a disease.  Genetic carrier status has no effect on an individual’s long-term health and does not require treatment.  Therefore, carrier status does not cost an individual’s insurance company anything.  Nor does carrier status create any disability that would affect one’s performance at work.  Therefore the risk of insurance discrimination is very low, and in fact, actual cases of discrimination based on genetic testing results are very few and far between.

Nevertheless, there is a federal law called the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) which prohibits health insurance and employment discrimination based on genetic information, and which your report entirely neglected to mention.  While there are limits to the protections provided by the law (see http://www.genome.gov/24519851 and http://www.dnapolicy.org/), GINA was specifically written to allow families to feel less afraid of having medically necessary genetic testing.  In addition, another federal law called the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) provides strict controls on the types of medical information that can be shared with non-health care providers, including information related to newborn screening and residual samples.  If a parent truly feels that their child’s medical privacy rights have been violated by newborn screening protocols, there are outlets for reporting that (see http://www.hipaa.ihs.gov/index.cfm?module=faq).

Finally, the third concern I have with your report is the suggestion that the government will surreptitiously begin adding tests to the newborn screening for common conditions like mental illness or diabetes.  Again, in my opinion, your report greatly exaggerates this risk.  Many of us are frightened of science-fiction scenarios in which babies are genetically labeled and sorted.  However, the goal of newborn screening is early treatment, not eradication of genetic traits or labeling of adult onset disease.  Your readers may be relieved to know that there are very stringent criteria for inclusion of a condition on newborn screening panels.  Committees of medical and ethical experts have carefully considered how common a disease is, how severe it is, and whether early diagnosis and treatment will make any difference before including a condition on the test panel.  Your readers should know that much of the movement to implement newborn screening did not come from government bureaucrats, but from families who have witnessed first hand the difference that newborn screening can make.

Certainly, as a society we should be debating the uses of genetic technology, including what conditions are included on testing panels, who gets to decide, who has access to our genetic information and how is it used.  I also concede that we health care providers can be doing a better job to make sure parents fully understand newborn screening, ahead of time, and have the opportunity to opt out of both testing and storage of DNA.  But make no mistake, newborn screening has saved lives, reduced suffering, and contributed to genetic and public health research.  I believe that most thoughtful parents, armed with balanced and complete information, would agree that the benefits of newborn screening far outweigh the risks, to both their children and the community at large.

Your report would have been less alarming and more informative for your audience if it had included more facts and less speculation.  For future stories on genetics, I encourage you to utilize the professionals in the American College of Medical Genetics (see http://www.acmg.net) and the National Society of Genetic Counselors (see http://www.nsgc.org) to both deepen and broaden your discussion of the issues.

Sincerely,

Suzanna Schott, ScM-LCGC

Licensed Certified Genetic Counselor

Albuquerque, New Mexico


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Glenn Beck Hates Babies: Death Panels, Newborn Screening, Fox News and Me

 “You are from the Glenn Beck Show?” I asked. My voice betrayed what for lack of a nicer word might be called skepticism.

 “The Glenn Beck Show,” she answered, her tone sliding past defensive into a smug I-know-what-you-are-thinking defiance that reminded me wordlessly of Fox News’ Nielsen dominance.  “We were wondering if you would like to come on the air tonight, to discuss newborn screening.  We are interviewing a woman who is suing the state of Minnesota for taking her child’s DNA without parental consent.  We were told you might provide some expertise on the issue.”

A quick succession of questions went through my head.  What was something as routine as newborn screening doing on the Glenn Beck Show?  What expertise were they looking for from me?  I reviewed what I knew on the subject.  Our system — a hodgepodge of opt-in and opt-out, implied consent and presumed consent – state-by-state regulations put in place in a simpler era, when newborn screening meant looking for PKU and a handful of other conditions.  It was not a system designed to handle today’s complex screening panels, and certainly not the use of newborn screening samples for research on genetic disease, birth defects, environmental exposures, chromosome studies and the like.  The topic interested me.  Being on television interested me.  Could I say yes?  Absolutely not, I told myself sternly.  This was Glenn Beck.  Who knew what crazy angle they would take?  There might be shouting.  What if he cried?  What on earth would I do if he cried?

 “Yes,” I said.  “I would be happy to.”

I was in New York, she noted, so I could come in and sit with Glenn in the studio.  With Glenn.  We were on a first name basis now, me and Glen.  Oh dear, I thought – or perhaps it was some other four letter word starting with ”sh”.  I poked around on the internet, searching for a few salient facts.  Minnesota tested for 53 conditions, 24 more than the 29 “core conditions” the ACMG designated top candidates for newborn screening.  The state permitted the use of newborn screening blood spots for research, usually de-identifying the samples first.  If you had a child in Minnesota, his or her DNA might be used to check the incidence of CMV infection, or the feasibility of newborn screening for Wilson’s Disease.  There was a study of mercury exposure.

I barely had time to break into a cold sweat in my closet when the producer from the Glenn Beck Show called back.  “Change of plans,” she said.  “We’re going in a different direction.”  A different direction — I was no longer needed.  They liked some other expert better.  I felt that peculiar pang you feel when people you despise and disdain don’t love you.  It was like junior high school all over again.

 And then I watched the show, which is to say there’s a first time for everything.  They hadn’t booked another expert in place of me (my heart gave a small, involuntary leap).  They had booked instead a state senator from Texas who was so completely insane that he made Glenn look reasonable by comparison.  The government was using newborn screening as an excuse to take DNA from children, the senator said.  That’s right, Glenn agreed.  It was like Nazi Germany, the senator insisted.  It could be, Glenn agreed.  Soon there would be concentration camps for people whose DNA the government found inferior.  Glenn tilted his head, like he couldn’t quite get his brain around that.  Probably not, he said, after a significant pause.

 Now I understood why I had been dis-invited for this crazifest.  They didn’t reject my expertise – they rejected all expertise.  Expertise was problematic in that facts could not be relied upon to support the narrative.  This wasn’t a story about newborn screening; it was a story about  government power encroaching on individual liberties.  The woman from Minnesota, a petulant but mild-mannered soul who had some good points to make about the actual risks of amassing a DNA database without proper consent – a practice confined to newborn babies and convicted felons – but she was left in the dust, unable to take the necessary next step of contextualizing newborn screening in the socialization of the American healthcare system.

 Complex issues are always at risk of being misused by in the service of a simple story that feeds into existing fears and beliefs.  The more complex the issue, the easier it is to cherry-pick facts to provide ersatz credibility.  In recent attacks on newborn screening, the underlying narrative is fear of big government, as illustrated by a CNN story last week titled: “The Government Has Your Baby’s DNA.”  Against all odds, this is actually a decent, balanced article – but if that headline doesn’t make you crazy, try reading the comments, several of which suggest that newborn screening is an invention of the Obama administration or a 21st century incarnation of Big Brother.  Death panels for the Headstart crowd.

 I applaud the spirit of the many genetic counselors who immediately looked to respond to the CNN article (No one said boo about the Glen Beck Show; was I the only one watching?).  Still, I think it is important to look at two key points before formulating any response:

1. Keep in mind the narrative.  Most people cannot be expected to care that much about newborn screening except as it fits into a larger context.  The fact that you are anxious to educate them does not mean that they wish to be educated.  Therefore, if the narrative is about a government power grab (and it is), then it probably won’t help to tell people that HIPPA and GINA will keep their babies safe.  I’m guessing that they will not take comfort in knowing that Washington has created two new acronyms to safeguard their children’s DNA. 

Ignoring the narrative is one big reason why the well-intentioned and well-informed have spent years dumbfounded by the intransigence of parents who continue to believe that vaccines do not cause autism.  I know it is hard to accept, but it just doesn’t help to offer someone the gold standard of peer-reviewed science when their meta-narrative is about how the medical establishment has been corrupted by for-profit entities.

 You can’t tell people whose fundamental issue is that they don’t trust the government that they don’t have to worry because the government will take care of anything.  What other options do we have?  Let’s try to remember that this is not about government rights; it is about baby’s rights.  The message has to be that every baby has a RIGHT to newborn screening.  We can’t get sidetracked into defending the will of the government to defend privacy and autonomy.

2. The narrative doesn’t just obscure the facts from those who believe it; it obscures the facts from those who despise it.  Let’s not lose track of all the valid concerns that have been raised by parents who object to a lack of education and consent in the use of newborn screening samples.  As much as we would like to insure parents that a database of blood samples would never be misused, it’s a fool’s business making promises.  The only sure thing about predictions is that some of them will be wrong.  No one anticipated the development of an algorithim that could match DNA samples to individuals within pooled DNA in GWAS, which sent government agencies scrambling to rewrite the rules for use of supposedly anonymous DNA registries.  No one anticipated that a teenage British boy conceived by sperm donation would be able to use ancestry testing designed for genealogy buffs combined with a few rudimentary facts like date of birth to find his donor dad.

 All other innovations in genetic services require vigilance and thoughtfulness.  But it is worth the effort, because every baby has a right to newborn screening.  We can’t sacrifice the possible to the paranoid, because that would be shortchanging America’s children.  That’s what I would have told Glenn Beck.  I might even have cried.

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Emerging Technology vs Old School

I don’t know about you but I have a love-hate relationship with technology.  It can make things simpler but it can also make things more difficult.  There are days where I miss old school…..you know….regular paper and pens.  There are also days where I am thankful for oodles of information available at a click.

Regardless of if you love or hate technology, we are in the middle of a technology revolution.  We  have to figure out ways to incorporate technology into our profession in positive ways.   We cannot ignore this revolution.

There has already been some resistance to the incorporation of technology within our profession.   There has been a lot of valid concerns about direct-to-consumer services, telephone genetic counseling, and online family history/pedigree programs.

Patient 2.0 is the concept where people meet online to discuss their health, clinical trials, which hospitals to avoid, which doctors to see, and treatments.  While this encourages people to take charge of their health it can be a danger if they believe inaccurate information found online.   Does Patient 2.0 do more harm than help or is it vice versa?

You can even ask healthcare questions on Twitter.  You can easily search for genetics apps on your iPhone/iTouch.  Some of these apps include; MGenetics, PubSearch, NextBio (correlated data from all public gene expression experiments), Odd Diseases: Genetics, and BioGene).  You can even listen to podcasts or genetic lectures at iTunes U.  If used correctly, apps could be developed to exposure middle and high school students to  the field of genetics.  Apps could also be developed as study tools for genetic counselors, however, we should not depend on these apps.

*Start rant:  Most podcasts and lectures are NOT captioned.  If you ever find yourself making a podcast please subtitle, caption, or make a transcript available.  THANK YOU! *End rant* 🙂

There is a new form being formed and it is a group with full access to technology.  What about those who do not have access to technology (e.g. Internet)?

Two concerns I would like to touch on:

1)      Should healthcare information online be regulated?  Should we start exploring ways to teach the public the limits of technology (e.g. don’t believe everything you read online)?

2)      It is easy to get lost in this technology revolution.  There will soon be a forgotten group.  People who do not have access to or do not feel comfortable with technology will be left behind.   How do we make sure this group will always have equal access to genetic services/information?

How can we combine the pros of both technology and old school in order to provide high quality genetic services for EVERYONE?

Thoughts?

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Filed under Kelly Rogel

“Just Say No” Doesn’t Work in Genetics Either

As Bob Resta’s post here on the DNA Exchange ably illustrates, genetic counselors have lots of reasons to take an interest in the Counsyl Universal Genetic Test.  Is it being oversold?  Probably – here are a couple of reasons why Universal is not universal:

  1. The company cites a high accuracy rate for detection of mutations – but of course they only mean the detection of mutations on the panel, which means it gets many but not all – this distinction would likely be lost on the average consumer.  And in the same vein, accuracy does not measure how many of these very rare mutations may be non-penetrant or benign.  It is hard to tell how often we will be suggesting unnecessary intervention, including extreme measures like PGD.
  2. People might understandably assume that “universal” means ALL diseases, rather than  a subset of rare diseases with a recessive etiology.  The specifics are there in the fine print but I’m just saying…

I imagine many counselors are leery of the Counsyl test because they suspect the people for whom expectations exceed performance will land in their laps, angry and frustrated.  This must be something akin to how the sanitation department feels about tickertape parades.

Then again, the Counsyl test has a lot to like:

  1. Great value.  The test offers information on 100 diseases for the same cost as we often see for information on one or two diseases.
  2. Accessibility.  A DTC test enables people who live far from any purveyors of genetic services.  Sometimes the question is not is this the best way? but is this better than nothing?
  3. Focus on rare diseases.  These are the orphan diseases – the ones that can’t get any attention unless Susan Sarandon or Harrison Ford make a movie.  This test may expand our ability to reduce the number of families who have tragic outcomes.  The Times cites critics as saying this is a step toward designer babies but if this is some exercise in vanity than so is EVERYTHING WE DO.  Seriously.

Saving babies, cost, accuracy, uncertainty – these are issues we have seen before, balances to be struck.  In fact, we make these decisions all the time.  What is really new about the Counsyl test is not the questions we must answer but the fact that no one is asking – it is not up to us!  Although genetic counselors have always prided themselves on allowing patients to make decisions, they have always been in control of the flow of information – of how much information was necessary to make a responsible decision.  Of what information was extraneous, and what information potentially dangerous.

Naturally our response to innovations like the Counsyl test is to debate whether or not the information in it is more likely to help or to harm our patients – just what I was doing when I made my list above.  It’s not a bad thing do, and I welcome comments on my Reader’s Digest version of the pros and cons, because counselors out there have a lot to add on that debate.

But we can’t universally confine our response to trying to weigh in on whether or not it is a good idea to allow the information to get out there unimpeded.  Why?  For one thing, it is a waste of time.  Trying to impede the flow of information in the 21st Century is a pastime for Luddites.  Harping on it will make us about as relevant as Amish fashion critics.  Sure – everyone does look good in black, but people are going to be wearing fuschia and even mauve.  It’s a fact of life.  I like clothes with zippers.  There are those moments when button-fly jeans are just too slow.  You know what I’m talking about.

Plus, reflexively, we should be for and not against the free flow of information.  This is America – land of the free, not land of the carefully vetted.  The nature of information is that it is confusing as well as enabling, and an excess of it does not diminish the importance of expertise – it creates an opportunity for expertise.  Let people get information and they will come looking for clarity.  Liz Kearney, the new president of the NSGC, has written persuasively about the need to establish an NSGC “brand.” She’s right.  We need a brand, and we need our brand to stand for credibility, clarity and unbiased scientific accuracy – something that will stand apart from all the information, accurate and otherwise, that comes from people who have something to sell, like the Counsyl Universal Genetic Test.

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Filed under Laura Hercher

Counsyl, Counselors, and Counseling

Recent discussion on the NSGC listserv – and an article in the NY Times – has centered on the policies of Counsyl, a private lab that offers carrier genetic testing for more than 100 mendelian disorders.  Specimens can be submitted to the lab directly by patients, without a healthcare provider’s signature – and therein lies the rub, at least for genetic counselors.

For the moment I want to set aside discussion about the appropriateness of testing without counseling, accusations of corporate eugenics, and the ethics of direct to consumer marketing. To be sure, there are valid points to be made by both sides on these weighty issues. Instead, though, I want to critique the company’s website, and offer suggestions for resolving some of the problems surrounding on-line genetic testing.

On the surface, the website seems benign enough. The home page prominently displays the company’s values, all of which would meet genetic counselors’ approval.  Counsyl recommends speaking to a licensed genetic counselor or other qualified professional either before or after testing, with on-line links to locate one. Virtually all of the conditions they test for are serious, with none of the trivial traits like earwax type and eye color that some labs screen for. The site provides information and resources about the diseases (most of which challenge my store of clinical genetics knowledge). The test is reasonably priced and uses saliva rather than blood.The company offers financial aid for those who cannot afford testing, and offers to work with non-profit groups and NGOs.

But for all its dispassionate presentation of numbers and information, the website subtly manipulates consumers and could play on their fears and guilt. Let me highlight a few of my areas of concern; you can probably find a few more on your own.

  1. Each year millions of healthy parents are taken by surprise when their children are born with life threatening disorders” the site proclaims.That may be true globally, but most readers will use their own country as a frame of reference. Of the 4 million plus babies born in the US, the number born with the tested conditions is probably in the thousands. Certainly a sizeable number, but several orders of magnitude less than the website proclaims.
  2. For all diseases, the site provides data on carrier frequency but not disease frequency. 1/28 – the cystic fibrosis (CF) carrier frequency – sounds a lot scarier than the disease frequency  of 1/2300, and far more frightening than telling an untested couple they have a 99.9% of NOT having a child with CF.
  3. Hispanic/Latinos are said to be at increased risk of having a child with CF: “Two diseases are particularly prevalent among Hispanics: sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis.” Yet the CF carrier rate cited for this population is 1/46, which is roughly half the carrier rate of Northern/Western Europeans.
  4. Of course, what parent would not be tested for a condition that can be cured or treated? The company claims that the testing can be “life-saving” and that “many treatment options exist” – then offers the following treatment options: preimplantation genetic diagnosis, sperm/egg donors, mental preparation, watchful waiting, and early childhood treatment.  Four out of five of these options have nothing do with treatment. And the vast majority of the diseases in question have no cure; treatment is usually symptomatic not preventative. Although PGD and sperm/egg donation is an option for a few couples, prevention really means abortion of affected fetuses. I could not find the word abortion anywhere on the site, though I did see a reference to “reproductive intervention.”
  5. The test is said to be 99.9% accurate. It would be more appropriate to say that the test is 99.9% accurate for the specific mutations that are being assayed. However, I suspect that samples are not being screened for all mutations at these disease loci, just the most common (I could not find an answer to this on the website).
  6. The website does not indicate that many newborns are already being screened for some of these conditions. And in the  site’s discussion of thalassemia, there is no mention that virtually all pregnant women are already screened reasonably effectively and cheaply for carrier status of this disorder with a CBC at their first prenatal visit.

I do not mean to imply that Counsyl is an evil or sub-standard laboratory. They are likely very sincere and dedicated in their desire to help people. Being a for-profit lab, though, their marketing needs to be aimed at, among other things, maximizing income.

We can sit around and tut-tut about on-line genetic testing. But like it or not, we are probably going to have to learn to live with some form of it. I therefore offer two suggestions to help us and our patients approriately utilize testing resources.

First, the National Society of Genetic Counselors should form a Laboratory Advisory Committee. For a fee, this committee would review a lab’s website and policies. If the lab passes muster, the lab can proclaim itself “NSGC Approved”. This could generate income for the NSGC, and allow us all to feel more comfortable if patients utilize approved sites. Obviously, the potential for conflict of interest and legal vulnerability is enormous, but this is a difficult – not an insurmountable – problem.

Secondly, genetic counselors need to conduct research to determine the validity of our concerns about on line testing and direct to consumer marketing. Is the medical and psychosocial harm as great as we expect? Some large studies such as the Scripps Genomics Health Initiative are under way, but it will be 15-20 years before this study is complete.  No doubt each of us can provide anecdotes that support our contentions, but these prove nothing. We need to collect data, figure out what it is telling us, and move forward from there.

We can point our fingers at on-line testing – or we can use our fingers to point the way.

__________________________________________

Post: See Laura Hercher’s take on the topic here.

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Filed under Robert Resta

Testing Your Limits

We genetic counselors take great pride in our role as patient advocates. Everyone is equally deserving of our best professional skills and unbiased support. Rich, poor, immigrant, homeless, transgender, disabled, non-English speaking …. we like to think that none of it makes any difference. We give them all our best non-directive shot.

On occasion, though, we encounter a patient who compromises our desire and ability to provide unbiased, empathic care. This may stem from subtle counter-transference issues, like the patient who evokes your ex-spouse or a client who is overly demanding and obnoxious. With professional growth and supervision, we can learn to deal with such situations.

But eventually you find yourself with a patient who makes you stop and say to yourself “You know, this one is crawling under my skin. I’m not sure I can be a good genetic counselor for this person.” Let me give a (hypothetical) example of patients who might evoke such deep feelings.

Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the two leaders of al-Qaeda, are arguably America’s greatest and most reviled enemies. Both men also have families. One of bin Laden’s 22 children, Abdul Rahman, was born with hydrocephalus (1/22 is approximately equal to the semi-mythical 3% risk we are so fond of quoting to our patients; congenital anomalies blindly cross all religious and ethnic boundaries). bin Laden flew his son to the UK for treatment, but declined a shunt, and instead chose to treat him with honey, a common folk remedy in the Arabic world.  al-Zawahiri ‘s fifth daughter, Aisha, had Down syndrome, born after nearly 20 years of marriage (the effects of advancing maternal age also are oblivious to culture and creed). Aisha died at age 4 of exposure to freezing temperatures the same night her mother was killed in an air raid as the family fled Afghanistan during the early days of the war.

What if one day you walked into your office and there sat either bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, seeking your clinical help? Could you dispassionately provide your best genetic counseling skills to these men? I, for one, would have a hard time. But our ethical system only works when it works for everyone, not when it is selectively applied.  Lawyers know this well, and that is why they defend even the most evil criminals.

The example is admittedly extreme and, not least of all, unlikely.  However, the information about bin Laden’s and al-Zawahiri’s families is neither fictional nor a wild Internet rumor; it is taken from The Looming Tower, Larry Wright’s superb Pulitzer winning book about the rise of al-Qaeda. I use the example to illustrate the point that we all have our limits, but those limits may be very different for each of us.

Which patients challenge your ability to provide genetic counseling? Would you be deluding yourself if you believed that your ability to engage all patients knows no limits? I encourage you to leave comments below – I am interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences.

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A less common motivation for prenatal diagnosis

As I explore a woman’s capabilities and values in decision making regarding pregnancy and testing, I sometimes uncover unexpected underlying motivations for the genetics consultation. One area that intrigues me and is not often discussed (if at all) in the literature is the desire for what is typically deemed a “poor” outcome.

I believe it is integral for the prenatal genetic counselor to understand the circumstances surrounding a conception – was this a desired pregnancy? Did it take a long time to conceive? Is the patient ambivalent about the pregnancy? There are times when I have I realized a pregnancy was unplanned and the patient did not wish to continue the pregnancy, but did not feel comfortable with abortion or an adoption plan.

To such individuals, prenatal diagnostic procedures can be the beacon of hope, the ticket to diffusion of responsibility. If a miscarriage occurs as a result of the procedure, the patient can take comfort in the justification that she was testing to ensure the health of her pregnancy and that the miscarriage was beyond her control. If a diagnosis of a chromosomal issue is made, the patient can feel further justified in pursuing an abortion feeling she does not want to bring a child into the world who may experience undue suffering.

If a patient desires a procedure because she has a hope it will increase her odds for miscarriage or the diagnosis of an anomaly and thus, facilitate a more passive act than actively terminating a healthy pregnancy, do you feel the procedure becomes unjustified? In medical world where (gratefully) diagnostic procedures are offered to everyone and termination is available for any reason, I believe the answer is no. But it is a key moment in counseling to explore the meaning/implications of the pregnancy for the patient and the ramifications of both a healthy or atypical outcome after diagnostic testing.

The genetic counseling relationship must extend further in this case when a diagnosis of a healthy fetus with 46 chromosomes is made just as it would when a diagnosis of Trisomy 18 discovered. The genetic counselor must continue to engage in the decision making process regarding the pregnancy, and if she uncovers psychological defenses and processes that are too complex for the GC to work through, she must refer to a social worker/appropriate counselor. Remember, the quality of a decision is often a function of the decision process itself more than outcome. I think if a patient can look back on a decision and feel she spent a great deal of time considering her values, beliefs, and desires, she can feel more comfortable with her choice whether it be to continue, terminate, or make an adoption plan. We can not simply inform the patient the results are “normal” and move on.

We often think about prenatal diagnosis in terms of the quest for the perfect child, the reassurance of a healthy child, the ability to prepare for a child with special needs, and the availability of making decisions in favor of termination the face of a difficult diagnosis. Often prenatal diagnosis is tied to a desired pregnancy where there is parental desire to feel some degree of control over their and their child’s future. But what I am thinking about is in opposition to this, an undesired pregnancy where there is parental desire to have little control over the outcome, to be in a situation where the individual does not wish to bear the burden/responsibility of making a decision against continuing a pregnancy. We must also remember that this all may backfire on the patient if a miscarriage really does occur or if a prenatal diagnosis is actually made. The patient may then begin to feel a great deal of responsibility, remorse, guilt, and shame that was unexpected. You have to be prepared for this as well.

We all make decisions hundreds of times a day that we are not conscious of, not challenged by. Sometimes decisions about prenatal diagnosis appear to clear cut and our patients may even describe them in this way. But we must be astute enough to recognize when this is not the case and engage the patient enough to openly talk about her thoughts and help her anticipate the myriad of potential genetic and emotional outcomes. And we must be prepared to effectively make appropriate referrals when the patient’s psychological dynamics are too complex for our training to unravel and assist.

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Filed under Jessica Giordano

Intellectual Climate Change: Can we Survive the Rising Sea of Data in the 21st Century?

Happy New Year!  It’s a whole new decade – time for some summing up, and some looking forward.

If I had to pick a defining image of the last ten years, it would be a tidal wave – a wave as big as the wall of water that drowned New Orleans, as big as the Christmas Day tsunami of 2004 – a flood not of water but of information that has broken over our collective shores.  Google search “information overload” and Wikipedia (result number 1 of 3,060,000) defines it as a condition resulting from the near instantaneous access to too much information, “without knowing the validity of the content or the risk of misinformation.”

The fact that our ability to produce and disseminate information has entirely outstripped our ability to analyze or fact-check is a reality of modern life.  To be sure, genetics is no exception – what with aCGH and the HGP and GWAS and other technology-driven acronyms spewing out data on the one hand, and the Internet on the other, where PLoS shares server time with the Discovery Institute, generator of creationism repackaged to resemble scientific research.

We might be forgiven for thinking, some days, that genetics is the ground zero of information overload.  But it’s not.  It’s happening everywhere.  Genetic counselors are often appalled at the giving out of genetic information willy-nilly – witness the response on the genetics community to such unwelcome friends in the sandbox as 23andme or DeCodeme – and the knee-jerk reaction is to say that genetic information is special, uniquely powerful, and must be given out by those with specific education and counseling skills (Hey!  That would be us!).

This type of thinking runs along the lines of genetic exceptionalism – the notion that genetics is fundamentally different than other sort of information and must be treated differently as a result – and while in some ways it may be right, it is also increasingly unrealistic. Yesterday’s PhD thesis work is tomorrow’s home-brew chemistry experiment, and microarrays are changing the economics of testing so that panels that once checked for 8 or 9 conditions now check for 300, while full-genome sequencing lurks around the corner, the paperback version of the HGP, available soon on Amazon.com.

What can we do, not to be the ones with our finger in the dike as the information tsunami rises around us like ocean water lapping at the Maldives?  We can’t cut off the flow of information.  We often call for commercial companies to give out information through genetic counselors, but is that really a solution?  The idea of commercial entities that do it “right” rather than “wrong” is comforting, but self-regulation poses inevitable conflicts of interest.

We may have jobs, perhaps good jobs, from companies that need genetic counselors to explain their products to consumers, but that doesn’t mean that, for genetic counselors as a whole, jobs within industry are a solution to the information overload dilemma.  Drug companies hire doctors to promote their pharmaceuticals, and while there is nothing wrong with working for a drug company, employing physicians is not the functional equivalent of a regulatory framework.

Across all fields from journalism to philanthropy, people are discovering ways to act as the mediator between the flood of information and the end users. The next-generation winners in information management are those who will be able to sift through and shape the available data flow into a manageable and trusted form – information brands.  We need to be consumer reports; we need to be wikipedia; we need to be CNN – we need to be a trusted filter that distinguishes true and false as well as necessary and unnecessary for the consumer of genetic information.  Jobs within industry will flow from that branding – what else do we bring, that a pamphlet or a webpage could not just as effectively communicate? – but they will not create the brand.  What will?  That is the million dollar question.

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Filed under Laura Hercher

Learning from the Naturopathic Model

I recently sat down with Jill Davies, a genetic counselor who is doing some really interesting work with genomics and preventive medicine in the primary care setting.  I won’t get into the details here, as I am hoping Jill will describe her role in her own words on DNA Exchange in the next little while. But our meeting has my wheels turning and has given me some new found inspiration about future career possibilities.

Coincidentally, the evening before my meeting with Jill, I attended my first naturopathic medicine appointment. My new family doctor has a patient share with an in-house Naturopathic Doctor (ND), in which my electronically stored medical records can easily be shared between the two. I’ve always been a little curious about naturopathy, and the pure ease of this system provided the added boost to follow through and try it.

During my hour and a half appointment with the ND we discussed in detail my medical history, family history, health concerns and general health goals. My main reasons for seeking naturopathic services are:

  1. the prevention of disease
  2. optimizing my health

As I discussed these goals with the ND it struck me that these very same objectives could drive me to seek personal genome services. I’ve always thought about personal genomics from an academic perspective, and to my surprise, never really put myself in role of the consumer. I’ve certainly thought about the consumers, but always as some abstract group of people most commonly referred to “early adopters.” So for the first time I could envision these services not just as a DTC internet purchase or as a function of specialty medicine, but as part of the primary care setting.

It is not my intention here to debate the efficacy of nutrigenomic products (such as Carolyn’s The DNA Diet, for example) or even the use of genomics in naturopathic medicine, but instead present the current model of naturopathic medicine as a potential model for personal genome services.

Consider this:

People seek naturopathic medicine services for a number of personal reasons. They meet with a professional with specific training in naturopathic medicine, and discuss their concerns. The naturopathic doctor then uses whatever “tools” they feel are most useful to address those concerns. Sometimes the knowledge gained from this service will be used to compliment the patient’s primary medical care, and sometimes not. In settings with a patient-share system with a family doctor, any test results can be easily shared between the two providers to enhance patient care. Generally, the patient can claim at least part of the cost of naturopathic medicine services from their private health insurance plan.

If you read the paragraph above again and substitute “personal genome” for “naturopathic medicine” and “genetic counselor/geneticist” for “naturopathic doctor,” does this seem incredibly plausible to you? It sure does to me.

_____________________

(initially posted on herNaturehisNurture)

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Filed under Allie Janson Hazell

Happy New Year from DNA Exchange!

When we started this blog a little over 7 months ago, we had no idea what sort of response we would get.  The morning that DNA Exchange went live and we sent the initial note out to the listserv, I was really nervous about how it would be received. My fears were clearly unfounded; I’ve been excited and encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from our community, with an average of over 4000 visits to the site each month.  Thank you to all of you who come back every week to read about and weigh in on the issues that we choose to highlight here.

In 2010 the goal of DNA Exchange remains the same: the promotion of public discussion about genetics and genetic counseling related issues. We hope that this discussion will continue to grow within the GC community and that we’ll see a host of new guest bloggers in the new year. We also aim to have some other stakeholders provide guest posts in the upcoming months, in order to further broaden the conversation.

We are planning a few small changes for the new year:

  • We have a new domain name: www.theDNAexchange.com. However, our old domain (www.dnaexchange.wordpress.com) will still redirect you here.
  • We are planning a new monthly feature called “GC Alerts” in which we will highlight what is being said about genetic counselors and genetic counseling on the web.
  • Finally, we are sending out an open call for a new header photo for the site. If you have an image that you think would work well for our blog header, please pass it along.

Happy and healthy new year to all. Thanks again for supporting what we do here. If you have any suggestions about how we can make things better, we are all ears.

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Filed under Allie Janson Hazell