About two months ago a story about conflict of interest in the Boston Globe caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the genetic counseling community. The article reported on the experiences of some pregnant women who felt that financial conflict of interest on the part of a few genetic counselors had resulted in the patients being given misinformation about the results of their non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT). The counselors mentioned in the study had either received speaking fees from the lab where the testing had been performed or was an employee of a lab.
In my reading, the source of the patients’ understandable frustrations stemmed not so much from conflicts of interest on the part of the genetic counselors as it did from misunderstandings on the part of the patients and their physicians about the distinction between the false positive rate and the positive predictive value of NIPT. These two very different statistical measures can easily be confused with one another and this confusion has haunted maternal serum screening since AFP screening for spina bifida was introduced in the early 1980s (we sometimes used to darkly joke that the A in AFP stood for Anxiety and the F stood for an impolite word that would be familiar to Boston Red Sox fans when they describe their nemesis Bucky Dent). Providers and patients often incorrectly interpret a false positive rate of, say, 0.2% to mean that a positive test indicates a 99.8% probability the baby will be affected with the disorder in question. Who would not be anxious if they were convinced that there was over a 99% chance that their baby has a potentially serious health condition?
I am sure that the genetic counselors in the story understood the distinction between positive predictive value and false positive rates, and tried very hard to convey this to the patients. These counselors are well-respected and highly ethical colleagues. Really, they could have been any of us. We all have been in these counselors’ shoes and we were all feeling their pain – as well as the patients’ pain – when we read the story. Did some blind spot on the part of the genetic counselors not allow them to see how their counseling may have been influenced by an unacknowledged conflict of interest? Perhaps, and that is a point worth considering seriously. But as every genetic counselor knows, the anxiety and emotional fragility of couples faced with threatening information, particularly during pregnancy, usually dominate genetic counseling sessions and can result in patients coming away with a less than perfect comprehension of statistical fine points. We humans are emotional creatures, not Vulcans.
I think that the evidence for overt financial conflict of interest on the part of these genetic counselors was not strong. The counselors were certainly not exploiting these patients “for personal advantage, profit, or interest,” in the words of the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC). My guess is that the concern about conflict of interest arose from at least one of the patients not finding out about the counselor’s relationship with the lab until afterwards (from the article it is not clear if at the time of genetic counseling the patient was aware of the counselor’s financial ties to the lab but it seems that she learned about it only later).
And therein lies a critical point about conflict of interest – the appearance of financial conflict of interest can be just as corrosive as actual conflict of interest. Grumble though we may about the article, by bringing this to our attention, the reporter, Beth Daley, performed an important service for genetic counselors and our patients and we should be thankful for it. Public trust in our professional skills and judgement can be seriously compromised if patients perceive us to have a financial conflict of interest. Unless we openly and honestly confront conflict of interest in all its many forms, rather than deny its existence or ignore its potential, problems and misconceptions stemming from the appearance of conflict of interest will only worsen. And, possibly, a more blatant financial conflict of interest scandal may one day rear its ugly head (it would be astonishingly naive to believe that “It can’t happen here.”).
So how can the NSGC and individual genetic counselors help reduce the appearance of conflict of interest? We should be in the vanguard of addressing financial conflict of interest and demonstrate that we take it seriously. To this end, I have one concrete suggestion – the on-line NSGC directory of genetic counselors should include voluntarily provided information about the financial relationships of genetic counselors with any company other than their employers. And the directory should also clearly state who the employer is in situations where genetic counselors are employed by labs but working in hospitals and providers’ offices. While we are at it, maybe the American Board of Genetic Counseling should also consider doing this with its directory of certified genetic counselors. The Affordable Care Act requires this of physicians but for now the law does not apply to genetic counselors.
I am guessing that this suggestion might not immediately sit well with some of us. But once you get past your initial reaction and think about it a bit more clearly, it is a simple and powerful idea. It is also consistent with Section 1 of the NSGC Code of Ethics, which states that genetic counselors should:
Acknowledge and disclose circumstances that may result in a real or perceived conflict of interest.
Avoid relationships and activities that interfere with professional judgment or objectivity.
Actions are more powerful than words. Voluntarily including this information in the NSGC directory demonstrates that genetic counselors recognize that conflict of interest is a real problem and that we are not sitting around waiting to do something only if some federal law eventually requires us to do so. It allows patients to learn beforehand about a genetic counselor’s financial ties and gives patients the opportunity to discuss it openly with counselors. Or, if patients are so inclined, they can seek an alternative counselor or a second opinion.
Transparency is always the best policy – for us and for our patients.