One of the few things we can all agree on is that there are few things we can all agree on. – Quote attributed to Yours Truly.
Genetic counselors have an uncanny knack for being in the right historical time and place. We have combined this historical luck with an almost naive courage in taking professional risks and parlayed them into a phenomenal growth rate for the profession. As soon as any new genetic testing technology was barely in the womb – amniocentesis, CVS, maternal serum screening, hereditary cancer testing, cardiac genetics, whole exome/genome sequencing – genetic counselors were there to gestate it and deliver it into medical practice. We have frequently re-invented ourselves to meet the needs created by new technologies – cardiac counselors, neurogenetic counselors, oncogenetic counselors, whole exome counselors, lab counselors. But one area where we may have stumbled a bit is direct to consumer (DTC) genetic testing. How do genetic counselors fit into a service that wants to bypass genetic counseling and that so far has been of dubious clinical value?
In our e-tail world where you can purchase just about anything online, some version of genetic testing/counseling that bypasses the traditional clinician-in-the-clinic model seems inevitable. Indeed, Color Genomics, a biotech start-up backed by players in the genetics and tech communities, is now offering what is essentially a hybrid of the traditional genetic counseling paradigm with DTC testing for hereditary breast cancer risk assessment. Tests are ordered and interpreted by a physician “either your own or one designated by Color.” Patients request a test kit directly from the lab, provide a saliva sample and then mail the kit back to the lab. The 19 gene panel includes BRCA1/2 along with the usual list of genetic suspects – PALB2, CHEK2, etc. The same tests that we offer to patients in our clinics for thousands of dollars along with the hassles of dealing with insurers and the complexities of scheduling and paying for a genetic counseling appointment can now be had with a spit sample provided from the convenience of your home. No muss, no fuss, never needs ironing – and at the shockingly low cost of $249.
For many patients, the hardest part of genetic testing is actually making it into our offices. It takes a big emotional investment to make an appointment that might involve psychologically sensitive and scary information, several rounds of phone tag with the scheduler, figuring out an appointment time that fits into in busy family/work schedules, determining insurance coverage, and then having to deal with multiple appointments at institutions that require additional visits for a blood draw and for results disclosure. Not uncommonly, my patients’ medical records often indicate that the referring provider had recommended genetic counseling many times over several years. Nobody comes to see us until they are absolutely ready to do make the commitment to do so. The Color Genomics model, by comparison, makes the traditional approach look positively byzantine.
Sure, we want assurances from Color Genomics on technical details of the test such as depth of coverage, ability to detect the widest possible range of mutations, follow-up on variants, etc. And we might question the success potential of a business model that offers a test at one tenth or less than what most competitors are charging. But this is a medically and financially savvy group, and I am willing to bet that they thoroughly addressed these issues before they launched this product. We can probably expect to see similar genetic testing start-ups in other areas of genetic testing.
With an estimated turn-around time of 6-12 weeks, this test is not for cancer patients looking to make a surgical decision in a few weeks. And, interestingly, $249 is more than many of my patients typically pay for BRCA or multigene panels. Because most of my patients – especially those who are being treated for cancer – have already met their deductibles, their out-of-pocket costs for genetic testing are minimal, assuming they meet their insurers’ criteria for coverage for genetic testing. For now, at least, Color Genomics might appeal to patients who have large out-of-pocket expenses, or those who do not want to go through the “hassle” of face-to-face genetic counseling, or lack insurance coverage for genetic testing/counseling, or who do not meet their insurers’ criteria for coverage for genetic testing, or patients whose insurers don’t cover multigene panels. More to the business point, Color Genomics’ mission is Democratizing access to high-quality genetic information, consistent with the recommendations of Dr. Mary-Claire King, one of the company’s advisors, for all women to undergo genetic testing for hereditary cancer risk assessment (me, I am not a big fan of universal screening for anything, but that’s probably just one more area where I am in the decided minority, and I wince at the use of the word “democratizing”). Of course, if insurers get wind of this inexpensive pricing and require samples be sent to low cost labs, then there will be even less of an incentive for patients to go through the traditional genetic counseling/testing model (currently Color Genomics does not bill insurers).
I can hear the protests about the problems that will arise when genetic counselors are not involved face-to-face in pre-test genetic counseling. The wrong relative will be tested, inaccurate interpretations by patients and care providers, increased patient anxiety, inappropriate under- or over-utilization of high risk screening and surgery. But we largely have only ourselves to blame. With a few exceptions and some small case series, the genetic counseling community has done little research to prove that meeting with a genetic counselor prior to genetic testing makes for comparatively better health or psychosocial outcomes. And, at least for now, the early studies on DTC testing have so far concluded that most of our concerns about patient anxiety, inaccurate test interpretation, etc. are mostly unfounded (yes, I know we all have a story to tell that suggests otherwise but for now they are only stories).
But whether we like it or not, one form or another of this new genetic counseling/testing model is probably here to stay. In fact, I will venture the prediction that most genetic testing for cancer and other common conditions will eventually go around rather than through clinic-based genetic counselors. It is convenient for patients, saves money (until we can prove otherwise), and may be every bit as good as we are in educating patients. Private labs, unlike most clinics and hospitals, have the great good sense to invest the resources in developing highly readable websites that include explanations, information, and graphics to help patients better understand their results (personally, I think that lab-provided education can subtly bias the information to make disease risks seem higher and interventions more beneficial, but that is a topic for another day).
So maybe it is time for genetic counselors to again re-invent ourselves. Perhaps the classic model of pre-test counseling is mired in twentieth century ethical and technological paradigms. New employment opportunities and roles for genetic counselors in labs will develop and labs may eventually become the primary employers of genetic counselors. We will have to reconsider how genetic testing is arranged and managed in our clinics. And most critically, we will need to develop an ethical framework for delivering these services. Opportunities for conscious and unconscious conflicts of interest abound in all areas of genetic counseling, but perhaps most conspicuously in laboratory employment. Will we be swallowed by the business community and its emphasis on profits à la Milton Friedman, the influential economist? Will we become consciously or unconsciously less critical of the downsides and limits of genetic testing when profits and salaries depend on testing volumes? What are ethical and unethical behaviors for genetic counselors in these settings? Will psychosocial issues fall by the wayside? Frankly addressing these questions will make us uncomfortable, but no one ever said that genetic counseling would be an easy profession.