Tag Archives: Genetic counseling

Left, Right, Left, Right: Pedigree Standards March Into The Future (And Start To Leave Behind The Male Gaze)

Ka mua ka muri (Walk backwards into the future with your eyes fixed on the past) – Maori whakatauki (proverb)

The NSGC Pedigree Standardization Task Force, of which I am a member, recently published updated guidelines for pedigrees, with a focus on sex and gender inclusivity.* Essentially, the guidelines state that the symbolic representation of individuals in a pedigree should be based on self-identified gender rather than sex assigned at birth. Squares, circles, and diamonds for people who identify as men, women, and non-binary people, respectively, supplemented by clarifying annotation when appropriate. A subtle implication of gender-focused pedigrees is that the internal logic of pedigree construction is no longer compatible with exclusively placing the “man’s family on the left and the woman’s family on the right” (to use the gendered language of yesteryear; more gender neutral but more awkward sounding terms might be sperm provider and egg provider). This point was illustrated in the article’s accompanying tables but not specifically called out in the text, though it is the subject of a brief follow-up Commentary. Of course, the discretion of which side of the pedigree to use for which side of the family is up to the individual counselor’s preference. It may take some getting used to, especially for those of us who have been drawing pedigrees for a very long time (“Oh no, how am I ever going to spot x-linked inheritance?”). But it’s a freeing choice rather than a restrictive mandate.

The reasons behind abandoning the long standing left/right tradition is straight forward. If pedigrees are based on gender, there are more than 2 genders, so a pedigree cannot logically and consistently be divided into halves. For example, if you are working with a couple in which one member was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman and the other assigned female at birth but identifies as a man and has undergone gender-affirming surgery, which person goes on which side of the pedigree? Furthermore, gender identity may change over time and so placing an individual’s family lineage on the left or the right based on gender could result in the unnecessary and confusing re-drawing of pedigrees over time. Eliminating the left/right prescription also de-prioritizes males, who previously would be the first person encountered when “reading” a pedigree from left to right. Yes, I recognize that a pedigree can be read in many ways, not just left to right, and the proband arrow is the initial focal point that draws you into the image. But the standard reading frame in Western languages is left to right. And the pedigree’s generation/individual numbering system (I-1, I-2, II-2, etc.) is such that individual #1 in the pedigree (I-1) is usually the male founder of the paternal lineage.

Pedigrees and genealogies in one form or another go back well over a thousand years. During that time, while it has been by no means uniform and universal, the majority of pedigrees followed the paternal lineage left/maternal lineage right tradition. So how did this tradition arise (for clarity, I’m going to stick with the terms paternal and maternal to keep with the linguistic flavor of the times during which pedigrees have evolved)? One possibility, of course, is that it was a fifty/fifty kind of thing. When you divide the world up into two genders, one gender’s family will wind up on the left and one will wind up on the right and so it may have been that the paternal lineage just wound up on the left and the maternal lineage wound up on the right. But I think that a trip back through the history of pedigrees and other genealogical diagrams reveals the influence of the Western male gaze in establishing this tradition, along with eugenics, and, of all things, the Roman Catholic Church.

Let’s start this backwards journey in 1995, when the Pedigree Standardization Task Force published it’s original guidelines. Figure 2 in that article states “If possible, male partner should be to left of female partner on the relationship line.” Why did we make that recommendation? Because, well, that’s the way we were taught to draw pedigrees. It was a given; we didn’t think about it too much.

From Figure 2 of the original NSGC Pedigree Standardization Guidelines.

Go back about a century or so, and we see the role of eugenics in shaping pedigree format. In 1912, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) published Bulletin No, 7, The Family History Book. Page 94 of that booklet contains a somewhat condescending critique of a pedigree of a “dysgenic” family, drawn by one the ERO’s primarily female Eugenic Field Workers, for the purposes of illustrating pedigree standards. The authors state “In this pedigree, the field worker has charted the males to the right and females to the left; this should be reversed for sake of uniformity of practice.” But they make no mention of where/why that practice arose. This same ERO publication recommended using the generation/individual Roman/Arabic numbering system for generations and individuals alluded to above.

Over in England, the male gaze was at work as well. The Treasury of Human Inheritance, a key publication in the history of medical genetics and eugenics and first published in England in 1912, recommended using the Mars symbol (♂), the archetypal manly God of War, to depict males and the Venus symbol (♀), the archetypal female Goddess of Love, to depict females. Francis Galton’s book Natural Inheritance, published in 1889, contains what he describes as a schedule for recording a family history in Appendix G. Not exactly a pedigree but same idea. In this schedule, “Father and his fraternity” are on the left and “Mother and her fraternity” are on the right. Galton, by the way, believed that males were inherently smarter than females.

Galton’s recommended Family Schedule, Appendix G, from his 1889 book Natural Inheritance.

Now we take a larger leap backwards in time to the 16th century and the establishment of the College of Arms, which is still active today and is the “official heraldic authority for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and much of the Commonwealth including Australia and New Zealand.” Essentially the College of Arms assigns a coat of arms to a family based primarily on family history. This institution has been collecting pedigrees for about 5 centuries, typically with the format of paternal lineage on the left/maternal lineage on the right.

Even in modern days, with a few exceptions, women are expected to display the coat of arms of either their husband or their father. If she chooses to display both, the husband’s coat of arms is displayed to the left or above the wife’s family’s coat of arms.

Guidelines for Display of Coats of Arms for women, per The Heraldry Society.

Another method of displaying a family history is the ahnentafel (usually translated from German as “ancestor table”). An ahnentafel lists a family history horizontally from left to right. Individuals on an ahnentafel are assigned specific numbers that cleverly allow you to determine the relationship to the proband without scanning through the entire table. The first ahnentafel was published in 1590 by the Austrian nobleman Michaël Eytzinger and it depicted the ancestry of Henry III of France. Note that the father’s lineage is above the mother’s lineage.

Ahnentafel of King Henry III of France, published in 1590 by Michaël Eytzinger.
Ahnentafel of King Henry III of France, published in 1590 by Michaël Eytzinger, from Wikipedia.

Medieval pedigrees, of course, were critical to establishing the right to rule. Whether or not you were going to be declared a Royal, or if you were Gene Chandler trying to become the Duke of Earl, all depended on your relationship to the current king or prince or count or whatever title you were aspiring to. Entitlement to the throne or castle depended on who your male ancestors were, so medieval pedigrees often omitted women other than to list them as spouses. Unless, of course, it was convenient in staking your claim to the throne, in which case a woman’s lineage was included in the pedigree to legitimize the claim, as in the case of a Carolingian pedigree drawn at the end of the 12th century.

Carolingian (i.e., from Charlemagne) Pedigree from the late 12th century. Note at the top that the ancestral king is one the left and the ancestral queen is on the right. From The Genesis of The Family Tree by Christians Klapisch-Zuber.

It may come as a surprise to some that the Roman Catholic Church, an institution steeped in patriarchy, had a hand in emphasizing the importance of pedigrees and in shaping their format. The Catholic Church was the dominant authority in medieval Europe and played a role in regulating nearly every aspect of the lives of nobles and peasants alike. Going back to at least the 7th century, the Catholic Church had strong prohibitions against consanguineous unions, what they classified as “an impediment to marriage.” The bans extended well beyond first cousins. To guide prospective mates, the Church produced an arbor consanguinitatis, a generic diagram indicating how close various relations were to a given individual, often drawn with, you guessed it, the paternal lineage on the left and maternal lineage on the right. Of course, for the right price and for the right person, the Church was willing to permit such unions, and also to annul the same marriage on the grounds of consanguinity when that became convenient. As they did for Eleanor of Aquitane’s 12th century marriage and subsequent annulment to her relative King Edward VII of France, and then overlooked it again in her subsequent marriage to very-soon-to-be King Henry II of England, another of her relatives.

Arbor consanguinitatis, from Isidore of Seville’s 7th century manuscript Etymologiae. Note that the paternal lineage is one the left and the maternal is on the right.

The Catholic Church also employed pedigrees to illustrate the genealogy of Christ, the so-called Tree of Jesse (Jesse was the father of Goliath-slaying David and a direct ancestor of Christ). This was especially useful for instructing those who could not read the Bible, which was practically everybody who was not a priest or a noble. The earliest known Tree of Jesse dates to 1086, though the tradition of graphically depicting biblical ancestry goes back at least to The Great Stemma, which is thought to date to the 5th century (The Great Stemma, like modern pedigrees, also has a left-to-right reading frame, starting with Adam). Jesse Trees typically depicted only the male ancestors of Christ, along with various other Biblical personages on the sidelines, cheering on the progression of the generations. These trees typically omitted Mary’s lineage (though often included an image of her) but did include the ancestors of Joseph, who technically is Christ’s stepfather and not his biological parent. Many include an actual tree emerging from Jesse’s groin, an image sometimes referred to as, ahem, “the rod of Jesse” (males and their delusional obsession with their penises, thinking they give rise to great trees!). It was not uncommon for kings to insert themselves into a version of a Tree of Jesse, likely in an attempt to show divine approval of their kingship, such as the elaborate family tree of England’s King Edward IV produced in 1461. The trees took on many forms over the years and can be found as illustrations in manuscripts, carvings, and on stained glass windows churches even to the modern day.

Tree of Jesse, depicted on a stained glass window from the Cathedral of Our Lady Of Chartres.
Rod of Jesse, by the Flemish engraver Johannes (Jan) Wierix (1573)

Another way that the Catholic Church may have influenced the appearance of a pedigree – and here I am speculating – is that it’s traditions may have been the source of placing the paternal lineage on the left and the maternal lineage on the right. A Catholic altar is often divided up into three parts – center, right, and left. The center is devoted to God. The right side – from the perspective of a priest looking out at the church – is devoted to Mary, the female. The left side is often devoted to Joseph, the male. Thus, think of looking at a pedigree as a priest looking out on a Church – paternal lineage to your left, maternal lineage to your right. Furthermore, in Catholic iconography, Mary is typically depicted as the right hand of Christ in Heaven. So it would be natural to follow that tradition when drawing a pedigree.

The Coronation of Mary in Heaven, from the apse of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (painted by Jacopo Torriti in 1295).

The story of the pedigree is more detailed and complex than I describe here, and probably goes even further back to the Roman Empire. What the story reveals is that even though a pedigree is an apparently objective and straight-forward graphical depiction of ancestry, it is suffused with the values of the people who construct them. The male bias in pedigrees was so embedded in Western European culture that it naturally spilled over into the architecture, appearance, and content of pedigrees. Sometimes those values are consciously articulated, as with the Task Force’s decision to recommend a gender-focused pedigree. More often, though, those values and biases are so engrained that we can’t see or perceive them, unless we march into the future with our eyes fixed on the past.

_________________________________________________________________

  • – The views expressed here are entirely my own and not necessarily those of other Pedigree Task Force Members or the NSGC.

1 Comment

Filed under Robert Resta

No Quibbling Over Sibling: Sisters and Brothers We Are One!

Gender-neutral language has evoked anything but neutrality. What with snide remarks about non-gendered pronouns and the politicized and contrived fears about how such language is a sinister plot to groom children for non-heterosexual behavior and non-binary gender identities, you would think gender-neutral language is a major threat to democratic institutions or an existential crisis for humanity on the scale of climate change. But these attacks lack substance and mostly just reveal a lot about our conscious and subconscious insecurities and biases, as well as our uneasiness with change. Language, especially the language of science, needs to be respectful and supportive of all people in all their infinite variety. Being decent shouldn’t be hard.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The history of the word “sibling” demonstrates how a gender-neutral term can be readily incorporated into language without fanfare or brouhaha (a word whose origin is said to be the sound of the cry – Brou-Ha-Ha! – made by a devil disguised as a priest, a stock character in French medieval plays). The story of sibling also takes an interesting detour through eugenics, craniometry, sexism, and fragile male egos.

Both sib and sibling go back to Old English around the year 1000 CE. Sibb, as it was often spelled in Ye* Olde English, simply meant any relative, regardless of gender or sex. The -ling suffix in sibling at the time likely did not have the diminutive implication it acquired later, and probably implied a sense of “familykind,” like adding -kind to human to yield humankind. Both sib and sibling mean the same thing. Incidentally, sib is cognate with the -sip ending of the word gossip, which came from the Old English word godsibb, a sponsor or godparent. Many centuries later, through the vagaries of language change, gossip developed its modern sense of petty talk about others that may or may not be true, an etymologically appropriate connection considering all the gossip about gender neutral language.

Old English had grammatical gender, just as the Romance languages do today, which makes the gender neutrality of sibling all the more notable. Grammatical gender started to disappear from English under Viking rule in what was called the Danelaw region of England in the 9th and 10th centuries. Old Norse, the language spoken by Vikings, was not a gendered language. I reckon a bunch of Vikings were not going to sit down and make a good faith effort to learn the complicated and random gender assignments of inanimate objects of a country they had just pillaged and plundered. It was just easier to drop grammatical gender altogether. When you rule a country and have a fearsome reputation, it’s much easier to accomplish that. This also demonstrates that an entire language can become more gender neutral.

By the end of the 15th century, sibling seems to have fallen into disuse. Standard etymology sources suggest it disappeared altogether until re-emerging in 1903, although Google’s Ngram viewer indicates the word began to be used again in the last half of the 17th century, albeit rarely.

So what’s so special about 1903 that sibling should suddenly re-emerge as a common word in the English language? In 2 words – genetics and its alter-ego, eugenics, both of which took root in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Interest in familial disorders blossomed, as did the publication of pedigrees and articles that discussed family members. Looking for a shorthand way to say “brothers and sisters” when referring to the offspring of parents, an article published in 1903 titled “On the laws of inheritance in man” in the journal Biometrika, authored by Biometrika’s Editor Karl Pearson and his student/assistant Alice Lee, included this perfectly boring but linguistically notable sentence:

These will enable us, by using the formulae of simple or multiple correlation, which depend simply on linearity, to predict the probable character in any individual from a knowledge of one or more parents or brethren (“siblings,” = brothers or sisters).

There, parenthetically snuck in at the end of the sentence, Pearson and Lee resurrected and repurposed the word sibling, although without the intention of waving the banner of gender neutrality. But the point is that a gender-neutral term can be introduced into scientific discourse and eventually common discourse as well without the collapse of civilization as we know it. Pearson’s imprimatur, given his role as editor of a prestigious journal and towering reputation as an innovative mathematical statistician, probably helped with sibling’s wide acceptance. It’s also possible that earlier authors may have used the word sibling but it has so far escaped our notice. Nonetheless, the word was uncommon enough in 1903 that Pearson and Lee felt the need to define it.

Pearson and Lee are interesting stories in their own right, and here is where the story detours into eugenics, craniometry, fragile male egos, and sexism. Pearson was a key figure in the development of mathematical statistics. Most readers of this blog are familiar with the chi-squared test, the standard deviation, and the correlation statistic r, formally known as Pearson’s product-moment co-efficient, all of which are usually attributed to Pearson. As a prominent disciple of Francis Galton, he was also a dyed-in-the-wool eugenicist. Many of his statistical innovations were developed in the service of eugenics. True to eugenic form, Pearson also reportedly called sibling “a good Anglo-Saxon word.”

Alice Lee was one of the first women to earn a D. Sc. in Mathematics at University College London. At a time when women were regarded as intellectually inferior to men, her thesis set out to prove otherwise. Managing to talk her way into a meeting of the all-male Anatomical Society in Dublin in 1898, she managed to get 35 distinguished anatomists to agree to let her measure their heads. Her thesis compared those measurements to the head measurements of male faculty at University College and to the head measurements of female students at Bedford College where she was a faculty member (Bedford College was England’s first all-female institute of higher learning). Not only did her results show no correlation between intelligence and head size, some leading anatomists and one of the men on her thesis committee had some of the smallest head sizes (talk about an intimidatingly scary thesis defense – publicly telling a committee member he has a small brain!). One anatomist had a skull capacity that was less than 50% of the women students. Her findings, as you might guess, were not well received. Her work was criticized by her committee as “unscientific” because, well, everybody knows that women’s brains are smaller and they have lower intelligence than men and the committee didn’t like having a finger stuck in the eye of their male egos. Even Galton, who was not on her committee, was asked to weigh in and he too criticized her work on the same grounds. But Lee persisted, and with support from Pearson, who backed her analysis, she was awarded her doctorate. Lee’s research, with her listed as first author, was eventually published in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Despite her skills, she remained a low-paid assistant for her entire career and was only awarded a pension when Pearson again stepped in on her behalf.

Lee’s measurements of the brains of anatomists. Note that her thesis committee member, Sir William Turner, has the 8th smallest brain. (Image from Wikipedia)
Alice Lee
Alice Lee, statistician, shrinker of male brains and male egos. (Image from Wikipedia)

Now back to the sibling story. English, of course, is not the only language that has a gender-neutral word for siblings. For example, German geschwister essentially translates as sibling. As does the Turkish word kardeş, which has a delightful etymology. The word was initially karindaş, a combination of karin (“belly”) + daş (“sharer”). Siblings shared a womb (usually asynchronously) and were therefore “belly sharers.”

Sibling has produced its own linguistic offspring (another gender neutral term that goes back to Old English). Nibling, a term for the children of your siblings (niece/nephew+sibling), was supposedly coined by the Yale linguist Samuel E. Martin in 1951, with a colleague “Dr. Sane.” But I have been unable to track down a citation by Martin proving this nor could I dig up anything about “Dr. Sane.” Chibling (children of my siblings) is a more recent variant of nibling. Pibling, a term for aunts and uncles (parent+sibling) was, as far as I can tell, coined in a brief 2005 article in the British Journal of General Practice authored by Dr. Neville Goodman. Perhaps I will be proved wrong, but to my ear these words sound too cute and contrived to gain wide acceptance. For what it’s worth, my spellchecker tried to correct chibling and pibling, but not nibling.

English, and many other languages, have plenty of gender-neutral terms. Introducing new terms, resurrecting old ones, or just using words we’ve always used, doesn’t need to create social drama or political warfare. No grammar drama is necessary. Language changes and the world still manages to stay on its axis.

___________________________________________________

*- For the language nerds out there, the “Y” in Ye is actually not the letter Y. It is an approximation of the now-defunct English alphabet letter thorn (Þ). Thorn is a phoneme sometimes pronounced like the th sound in “the” and sometimes like the th sound in “thick.” Thorn originated in the runic alphabet and was used in Old and Middle English. The printing press was imported into England in the 1470’s from Belgium and the Netherlands, countries whose native alphabets did not include thorn. The closest approximation that the printer’s types had to thorn was the letter y. So Ye Olde English is actually “The Old English.”

1 Comment

Filed under Robert Resta

Acting In Bad Faith? A Proposed Religion-Based Genetic Counseling Training Program

As some DNA Exchange readers may know, Union University, a self-described Christ-centered school in Tennessee, is working to establish a faith-based genetic counseling training program. According to the school’s website, the program’s goal is “to train and equip excellent genetic counselors who are compassionate pro-life Christians.” As far as I know, the program has not yet applied for accreditation through the Accreditation Council For Genetic Counseling (ACGC), though it is apparently planning to do so. The program is also seeking endorsements from the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Christian Medical and Dental Association. For all that, it does not yet appear to have the funding to support the program.

Let me be clear up front – I am not anti-religion. Religion plays a critical role for many of us in establishing our identities, values, core beliefs, communities, and how we cope with and understand the world around us. Nor am I critical of any genetic counselor who has deeply held religious beliefs or opposes abortion; religious diversity only enriches the profession. But I am critical of religious teachings that can cause harm and that are used to justify sub-standard medical care.

The program describes pro-life genetic counseling as focusing on these values:

  • Relationship and community within a Christian context, including prayer for and with the patients
  • Carefully and lovingly applying Scripture to each situation
  • An in-depth interpretation of the genetic data, including ambiguities, in ways that all patients can understand
  • Connecting patients with others in similar situations
  • Advocating for children born with non-traditional genetic profiles
  • Advocating for adoption in all of its Biblical forms
  • Applying Christian genetic counseling principles to patients making genetically-related decisions at any age, including decisions regarding reproduction or end of life issues
  • Providing continuing education on the latest data and advancements in the field through the academy and to the greater public

I am not sure who the faculty might be. The program’s administrator has a PhD in Experimental Pathology and specializes in plant tissue culture but does not appear to have training, publications, or accreditation in medical genetics or genetic counseling. A director is not named though the site acknowledges that this person needs to be a certified genetic counselor.

I suspect that, like me, many genetic counselors are not comfortable with the idea of a faith-based training program. It’s like having a Creationist teach a course on evolution. I don’t know which specific Christian tenets the Union program will adhere to as there is some variability in the moral positions and beliefs of different branches of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Tennessee Baptist Convention, which the school is affiliated with. But there are a number of potential concerns in terms of the ability of the program to produce appropriately trained graduates whose practice can conform to the NSGC Code of Ethics and provide compassionate care that supports the wide spectrum of core beliefs, values, and life styles across the patient population.

Reproductive options such as abortion, gamete and embryo donation, and carrier screening for purposes of avoiding or terminating a pregnancy are explicitly prohibited by most Evangelical Christian churches. Hence faith-based genetic counseling does not provide, as the NSGC Code of Ethics states, “the necessary facts, and clarifying the alternatives and anticipated consequences.” This violates a long-standing core principle of the practice of genetic counseling. One might argue that these are not viable options anyway for some Evangelical Christians and so it is not a serious ethical lapse if they are not offered. But a good counselor will clarify up front what the patient’s values are and, if patients are opposed to certain courses of action, then those options will not be offered or judged. A good counselor will also not assume that Evangelical Christians are a monolithic block who all strictly adhere to their church’s teachings about contraception and abortion. What matters is not what choices are available to all patients. Rather what is important is to explore the choices available to a specific patient based on their values, beliefs, and social situations.

Another area of concern about faith-based genetic counseling relates to matters of sex, sexuality, and gender. For most Evangelical Christians, there are two and only two sexes and two genders based on sex and gender assigned at birth, gender is biologically determined (man and woman), anything other than sex between husband and wife is not permissible, and homosexual behavior is not tolerated. If an unmarried couple or a single pregnant person came for genetic counseling, could the counselor withhold overt moral judgment? This belief would also make it impossible to utilize the most recent pedigree standardization guidelines, which emphasizes the importance of appropriately depicting people of different genders as well as those who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

And the school takes their censure of homosexuality seriously. In 2015, Union University withdrew from its association with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) after CCCU failed to censure two other affiliated schools that altered their hiring and benefits policies to include same-sex couples. In 2017, Union’s president and 3 faculty were signatories to The Nashville Statement, a document that condemns homosexuality. In 2020, Union University rescinded the admission of a student in their graduate-level nursing program after it was discovered that he was in a same-sex relationship, and other LGBQT+ students claim the school has tried to them to undergo harmful conversion therapy. The school’s code of conduct, called a Community Covenant, states that “The promotion, advocacy, defense, or ongoing practice of a homosexual lifestyle (including same-sex dating behaviors) is also contrary to our community values.” So a genetic counselor who graduated from such a program could not even publicly or professionally support patients who are not cisgender heterosexual.

In Evangelical Christian teaching, people who are intersex are accepted into the church but told, quoting from the Bible (Matthew 19:12), that they are “eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb” and that God will reveal their “true” sex and they will be “healed” on the Last Judgment Day. It is, of course, biologically inaccurate to state there are only two sexes and genders and that people who are intersex are somehow broken. It is also psychologically and socially damaging and leads to higher suicide rates and psychological trauma for people who are intersex and/or non-binary. There’s nothing pro-life about that. And I suspect that most intersex people would be offended at being called “eunuchs.”

Some Evangelical Christian teachings, and Catholic teachings for that matter, typically prohibit contraception and sterilization, except in certain rare circumstances, even though contraception – surgical or otherwise – can result in improved health and economic well-being for women and families. For some Evangelicals and Catholics, this ban could also be interpreted to mean that women who carry pathogenic BRCA1/2 mutations might not be able to obtain a pre-menopausal risk-reducing oophorectomy. Not surprisingly, the Evangelical stance on sterilization and contraception has historical ties to eugenics (of course, so does genetic counseling so we can’t claim the moral high ground here) and the fear that Christians, especially White Christians, are reproducing at lower rates and will be replaced by other races and people with other religious beliefs who purportedly  have higher fertility rates (I know of no direct connection between eugenics and Union University or its genetic counseling program). Madison Grant continues to raise his ugly head. Furthermore, Union is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Association, which itself is, as noted above, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in Georgia in 1845 by white supremacists and supported slavery and anti-miscegenation laws, and opposed the Civil Rights Movement well into the 20th century, though by the 1990s, the Southern Baptist Convention denounced its past ties to these beliefs and is now ethnically and racially more diverse.

People who identify as Christian, especially conservative Christians, are less likely to utilize genetic testing and counseling and providers who identify as Christian are less likely to offer these services to their patients. Since about 14% of Americans identify as White Evangelical Protestants, they represent a significant minority who are possibly not being reached by currently available genetic services. Faith-based genetic counselors could argue that they would increase the utilization of genetic counseling in this population, which would align with principles that are key to NSGC’s JEDI initiatives. However, they are doing nothing to address JEDI issues, and in fact are working at cross-purposes to it if they are providing sub-standard and inaccurate counseling and condemning anything other than heterosexual behavior and telling people who are born with sexual variations that they are “broken.” The genetic counseling profession embraces diversity, including religious diversity, but it does not support intolerance.

On the other hand, the genetic counseling profession needs to make clear that it is very supportive of the range of religious views of their patients. We are perfectly capable of working with conservative religious patients while also maintaining our personal religious beliefs. The experience of even some of the more conservative Amish groups with genetics by and large shows this.  And, as Frances Collins and other scientists demonstrate, Evangelical Christian and other religious scientists and physicians participate in first class and ethically acceptable genetic services and scientific endeavors while accepting standard scientific theory, research, and data and without receiving training from a conservative religious institution. But clearly the genetic counseling profession can do better at actively working with religious groups to demonstrate that genetic counselors can provide services in a supportive, respectful, and non-judgmental manner and supporting our colleagues who are religiously conservative.

I am not familiar with the fine details of obtaining ACGC accreditation, but I do know that it is a lengthy, demanding, and complicated process. It is possible, maybe even probable, that ACGC will deny certification to Union University. The program could then decide to develop their own accrediting organization that specifically certifies only graduates of faith-based programs. After all, that’s what genetic counselors did when we separated from the American Board of Medical Genetics back in 1992. While this would likely be illegal in some states that already have genetic counseling licensure, it might be less of an issue in states that don’t currently have licensure. It’s also possible that some conservative legislatures in states that already have licensure would be willing to modify existing laws to extend genetic counseling licensure to graduates of faith-based programs.

Faith-based genetic counseling can be read as being part of a larger problem of some religious groups using legislatures and judiciaries to dictate medical care guidelines for the general population that aligns with the religion’s beliefs. In addition, some religious groups have increased their control of the practices and policies of health care institutions by purchasing them as well as by creating versions of health insurance plans, something I warned about a decade ago in a 2013 plenary session at the NSGC Annual Education Conference (Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 9:45 AM, to be precise). For example, Catholic hospitals comprise the largest non-profit group of health care providers in the US. This can result in severely limiting access to abortion in states where it is still legal and and reducing access to contraception and surgical sterilization. They are literally trying to force the entire US population to embrace a very narrow minority interpretation of Christian theology.

But the profession can’t only be angry about it, however justified the anger might be. We can’t ignore and dismiss it. We have to understand it, adapt our practice, respond thoughtfully, examine some of our core ethical principles, and be willing to take a stand on controversial issues. It raises some tough questions, but we have to answer them.

7 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta

Unprofitable Genetic Testing Labs – The Size of the Loss, The Reasons for the Loss, and What It Means for Genetic Counseling and Genetic Counselors

By Katie Stoll, MS, Jessie Conta, MS, and Michael Astion, MD, PHD

Genetic counseling is a critical part of the genetic services process, beyond just coordination and ordering of a genetic test. However, as the genetic counseling profession has grown alongside the expansion of genetic testing, it has become increasingly intertwined with and dependent upon the financial success of commercial genetic testing laboratories. The relationship risks undervaluing genetic counseling and the breadth of the services genetic counselors provide.

The genetic testing industry has seen rapid growth over the past two decades, with many new companies and billions of dollars invested into start-up genetic testing labs. Despite the enthusiasm of venture capitalists and other investors, commercial genetic testing labs are largely unprofitable, and the losses are significant and sustained. This is shown in Tables 1 and 2 below which are derived from analyzing publicly available, quarterly and annual financial reports (10-Q and10-K Filings) of publicly traded companies whose primary business is clinical genetic/genomic testing.

As shown in the tables, it is common for publicly traded, genetic testing labs to report annual losses of >$100 million. In 2021, only one lab, Fulgent, made a profit (Table 1). However, Fulgent’s 2021 – 2022 quarterly reports (Table 2) indicate that profits aren’t attributable to genetic testing, but rather to COVID test sales, which accounted for ~88% of their 2021 revenue. Myriad has seen a consistent decline in revenue since the US Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013, which forbid human gene patenting and therefore caused Myriad to lose their lucrative BRCA testing monopoly. Although the losses have not been as severe as their competitors, Myriad has not been profitable since 2019, and they have reported greater losses in the first two quarters of 2022 than their annual loss in 2021.

Profit and loss data is difficult to obtain from private genetic testing companies such as Color Genomics, as well as from genetic testing labs owned by much larger, diversified companies, as is the case with Ambry being owned by Konica Minolta. Similarly, profit and loss data on genetic testing is unavailable from integrated health systems, academic medical centers, or publicly traded labs –like Quest, LabCorp, and BioReference— who only have a small portion of their overall testing business in genetics. In regards to academic labs and labs in integrated health systems, our experience, as well as discussions we have had with colleagues strongly suggest that genetic testing is performed at a financial loss, and that it is the overall profit of these full-service labs that allow them to support genetic testing.

Why aren’t genetic testing companies profitable?

Publicly traded genetic testing labs are unprofitable for a variety of reasons. The top reasons are poor reimbursement from insurance plans and patients; intense competition; and excessive expenses for sales, marketing, and executive compensation. In addition, the inclusion of genetic counseling, which companies have highly valued as part of their testing service, adds an expense that is not seen in the other analytic sections of a full-service clinical lab.

Insurance reimbursement

The service of genetic testing is a costly one to deliver and is much more expensive than a lab’s cost to perform other tests. For example, the fully loaded cost of performing a typical test in a highly automated, hospital-based core laboratory is in the range of $10-$20 per test. This includes common tests like complete blood counts, electrolytes, basic coagulation tests, thyroid screening tests, and liver function tests.  For an insurance plan this type of common testing is >65% of their expenses. The cost to labs of genetic testing is much higher, often 10-100-fold higher. Genetic testing usually represents < 20% of an insurance plan’s spending on lab tests.

Why is genetic testing so costly to labs? The main reason is that it is difficult scale genetic testing in a manner analogous to common, high-volume laboratory tests. Compared to common tests, genetic testing is more labor-intensive, more time consuming, involves higher-wage staff, and involves technology that has a higher cost per test. Genetic testing is time consuming because it requires complex tasks not seen with common tests, such as variant analysis, curation, review, and updating. And for many companies, it also includes providing the genetic counseling service, which is often bundled into the service of providing the test. Overall, genetic testing is a personalized, complex technical service which has resisted, for now, the type of full automation that has benefited other parts of the clinical lab.

The high cost for performing genetic testing necessitates high costs to patients and their insurance companies. Historically, insurance companies are mediocre at regulating high-volume, low-cost lab tests because it is too cumbersome and expensive to manage. However, insurance companies have many effective tools for regulating high-cost procedures, including genetic tests. The result is that high-volume, low-cost laboratory tests have a relatively open door to reasonable insurance payments, and insurers invest only a little energy toward closing that door. In the case of genetic testing, the door is closed or only partially open.

Besides negotiating fees with certain labs, the main method that insurance plans use to control genetic test reimbursement is detailed medical necessity policies tied to preauthorization systems. Insurance companies either develop the policies and pre-auth systems or purchase them from third-party benefits managers. Overall, the method involves using software that aids decision making in combination with genetic counselors, nurses, and physicians who adjudicate cases at various decision levels. This approach is then married to an insurance plan’s usual and customary procedures for handling grievances from patients and labs that have been denied payment. For insurance plans, this type of complex system, which is both software and labor intensive, would have a poor return on investment if applied to low-cost, high volume lab tests. But for genetic testing, this type of system has an excellent return on investment, and so insurers are highly motivated to regulate genetic testing. In addition, these insurance systems tend to be overly tuned to block fraud, waste and abuse, and often delayed in keeping up with scientific evidence. Therefore, insurance systems may block some medically necessary genetic testing.

Patients bear high out-of-pocket costs for genetic testing. This is because they are financially liable when their insurers do not cover the test, and, even when insurers provide coverage, there still can be high deductibles or co-pays. In the laboratory industry, it is very expensive to recover the money that the patient owes, and poor financial recoveries from patients is common. This failure to recover the patient portion of the bill adversely affects the bottom line of genetic testing labs.

Response to poor reimbursement from insurers and patients

Many labs performing genetic testing have responded to preauthorization requirements by investing in resources – which sometimes can create an entire division or department – that provide support with prior-authorizations, as well as appeals and support when test coverage is denied. This can help grow the testing business because it removes a barrier that blocks some providers from ordering testing. However, the removal of the barrier comes at a high cost to the genetic testing lab.

To help patients directly, some labs have promised patients low out-of-pocket costs either through reducing the patient’s responsibility under their insurance plan, or by promoting self-pay options that avoids involving the insurance plan. Thus, some labs promise patient out-of-pocket maximums, typically advertised as about $100 when insurance does not cover testing.

For self-pay options that do not involve insurance, the price for genetic testing for patients is often much lower than the list price available to care providers, and it is highly likely that price does not cover the costs of the tests. The current going rate at most labs for self-pay testing for multigene panels is around $250, which is usually much less than what labs try to collect from payers, including Medicare and Medicaid for the same test.

Sales and Marketing

A review of publicly available, 10-K submissions, show that it is not unusual for genetic testing companies to have marketing and sales budgets around 40-50% or more of revenue, which is much higher than typically seen in established, full service clinical laboratories. This most likely relates to the goal of growing revenue and capturing market share, despite the high cost of achieving this in a competitive, and poorly reimbursed business. Those NSGC parties, sponsored luncheon and dinner events, “free” CEU opportunities, and even the complementary genetic counseling, all come at a cost for the marketing and sales budgets of these companies.

Executive compensation

Another contributor to financial losses in publicly traded genetic testing labs is the high pay of executive leadership, including chief executives. Review of executive compensation data shows that executive pay is often inversely correlated with net profits – the longer that a company lasts, regardless of how deep the losses grow, executives tend to be well rewarded. For example, Natera reported compensation for the company’s chief executives totaling $8 million while company losses totaled $128 million in 2018. Contrast this to 2021, when Natera’s C-Suite compensation was > $53 million despite company losses that were > $471 million.

Although these companies are not generating operating profits, their investors aren’t necessarily hurting as a result. Stock prices for boutique, genetic testing labs don’t often sync with the lab’s financial health, and based on reported trading of company insiders, some investors are gaining significant wealth despite the losses of these labs. For example, Invitae hit all time stock highs in December 2020 despite enormous losses reported in every quarter that year. The net loss for Invitae in 2020 was >$600 million, while that same year Invitae insiders cashed out more > $46 million in stock. Another example is that the current CEO of Natera cashed in nearly $76 million in stock over the past four years, while cumulative losses for Natera totaled >$ 1 billion over that same period.

What is at stake for genetic counseling?

A 2018 publication in the Journal of Genetic Counseling analyzed the financial challenges of commercial genetic testing labs and what that could mean for genetic counselors. The authors speculated that genetic testing companies may not find a path to profitability, and their ability to support genetic counseling services may subsequently decrease.

Since this initial analysis, the losses of these companies have continued to grow, and investors have become less enthusiastic. This has put pressure on many companies to change and adjust their business strategy in order to survive. For some, this means cost cutting measures to decrease their cash burn with hopes to increase the odds of profitability. And as predicted, difficult decisions are taking place with many genetic testing companies resulting in layoffs of staff, including genetic counselors. Last month, Invitae announced layoffs of over 1,000 staff, including most of their clinical genetic counselors. SEMA4 and Ambry Genetics have also had layoffs in recent months. Given the overall picture of the financial health of all these labs, and increasing challenges in raising funds, it is likely there will be more layoffs to come for genetic counselors and others who work at these companies.

What does the current financial state of genetic testing laboratories mean for the delivery of genetic services and for the genetic counseling profession? A substantial portion of genetic counseling is now delivered through genetic testing laboratories who have packaged genetic testing with the offer of genetic counseling to draw in clients. If we see fewer companies maintaining genetic counselors on their staff, where will genetic counseling support come from for these patients? In addition to the labs themselves, many of the growing genetic counseling telehealth companies are closely tied to the testing laboratories, with much of their funding and contracts coming through commercial laboratories rather than direct patient referrals or contracts with clinics. It seems possible that these arrangements could also be negatively affected with current financial pressures and cuts to “extra” costs. Genetic counseling is not an “extra” bonus service, but rather a critical part of the genetic services process. Relying on genetic testing companies’ funding to ensure access to this service does not appear to be a sustainable model.

For genetic counseling services to be sustained, independent of the financial health of corporate testing laboratories, it is essential that genetic counseling be recognized and reimbursed as an independent service, with inherent value that is separate from genetic testing. Recognition by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is a necessary step towards sustainable and independent genetic counseling services, regardless of service delivery modality. I hope you all will join in continued advocacy to see the Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act H.R. 2144 / S. 1450 enacted into law.

Michael L. Astion is a clinical pathologist who is Medical Director, Department of Laboratories at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Clinical Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington. For almost two decades he worked at the University of Washington, Department of Laboratory Medicine where he was a Professor and Director of Reference Laboratory Services. His career is divided between clinical service, teaching, clinical service, and research and development. He is the editor-in-chief of Patient Safety Focus, which appears quarterly within AACCs Clinical Laboratory News. He is one of the founders of PLUGS (Patient-centered Laboratory Utilization Guidance Services), a national collaboration whose mission is to improve test ordering, retrieval, interpretation and reimbursement. Dr. Astion is a frequent speaker at professional meetings, where he lectures on issues related to laboratory test utilization; test interpretation; laboratory economics and outreach; and medical errors.

Jessie Conta is a licensed genetic counselor in the Department of Laboratories at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She received her Master of Science degree in genetic counseling from Brandeis University. As the Manager of the Laboratory Stewardship Program at Seattle Children’s, she leads genetic test stewardship interventions, including insurance alignment related to genetic testing. Jessie is also a co-founder and Director of Genetic Counseling Services for PLUGS (Patient-centered Laboratory Utilization Guidance Services), a national collaboration whose mission is to improve test ordering, retrieval, interpretation and reimbursement.

5 Comments

Filed under Guest Blogger, Katie Stoll

The Questions We Should Really Be Asking After Reading the NY Times Article About Prenatal cfDNA Screening For Microdeletions

As the genetic counseling world knows all too well, the New York Times recently published a story about prenatal cfDNA screening for chromosomal microdeletion syndromes. The gist of the article is that screening for microdeletions has a high number of false positives that produce significant patient anxiety and, in a very small number of cases, patients have elected to terminate a pregnancy before confirmatory diagnostic testing. The Times piece generated 1100+ comments on its site, including many from genetic counselors and physicians, not to mention vitriolic sturm und drang on various social media.

Clearly the article touched a collective genetic counselor nerve — a lot of the reaction has been more reflexive than reflective. Which is kind of surprising, considering that cfDNA for microdeletions is a so-so screen for a handful of rare conditions that genetic counselors have not widely agreed should be included on these tests.

Most of the criticism centered on the article not always making a clear and consistent technical distinction between a screaming test, er, uh, I mean, a screening test (which cfNDA is) and a diagnostic test (which cfDNA is not). This confusion has been an ongoing problem since the early to mid-1980s when AFP screening for neural tube defects — and maternal anxiety over testing — was first working its way into clinical practice (I remember one of my patients back then referring to AFP as “alpha-fucking protein”). Forty years later, and the anxiety and misunderstanding has not improved much.

Some of those criticisms are fair, particularly when the article describes cfDNA results as being “wrong” or “inaccurate.” To the specialist, the term false positive has a very specific definition,* and hence the source of the reaction to the article. But from a semantics standpoint, doesn’t the word false in false positive imply wrong? You can also think of calling a result “wrong” as an example of the tried and true counseling strategy of reframing, i.e. “Well, Jane, your test result actually says that there is more than an 80-90% chance your baby does not have a microdeletion.”

In my opinion the article otherwise does a decent job of highlighting the statistical complexities of cfDNA. The accompanying Figures are helpful in explaining what is essentially the positive predictive value of the tests. In fact, I think the graphics are better than the explanations and graphics on many of the testing laboratories’ websites. Many of these websites are even guiltier of muddling the differences between screening and diagnostic tests, and labs really should know better. It’s no wonder that patients might be confused and anxious when they read that a test is “highly accurate,” “an alternative to amniocentesis or CVS,” and can be assured of a “healthy baby” when results are normal. To be fair, some of the websites also address the distinctions between screening tests and diagnostic tests, but only if you click down into the rabbit warren of information.

I think most of the criticism by genetic counselors glosses over more important and fundamental questions that should be the focus of critiques of prenatal testing and our reaction to the Times piece (here I am defining prenatal testing as including screening and diagnosis). These critical questions include:

• Should we test for any condition prenatally? This is an ethically and for some a religiously complex question but it underlies all of the subsequent questions.

• If there is broad agreement that prenatal testing should be available, then what is its purpose? Realistically, with a few exceptions, is there any purpose beyond selective termination? While termination is an important option and benefit of the test for some, it’s not a course of action that all parents will choose. Some parents might decide to have prenatal testing for “preparation” but as I have argued elsewhere there is minimal data saying one way or another whether prenatal knowledge of a condition helps babies or their families, medically, emotionally, or developmentally (thought at least one study is beginning to address this shortcoming). If patients are going to be put through the emotional ringer of prenatal testing, we should be able to provide solid data on whether prenatal knowledge of a condition provides benefits in addition to the option of termination.

• What criteria should be used in determining which conditions should be subject to prenatal testing? Even if every genetic condition could be detected prenatally (and we might actually get close to that point one day), it wouldn’t make sense to test for many of them. Clinically rational and ethically acceptable criteria need to be developed to guide the selection of conditions to consider for prenatal testing.

• Who decides which conditions are screen-worthy? As Ilana Löwy and others have noted, commercial labs often spearhead this choice but decisions are reinforced and supported by the medical and genetics communities that order the testing. If no one ordered a test, labs wouldn’t offer it. As Liza Minelli, Joel Grey, and Scarface remind us, money makes the world go around. Are we screening for some conditions primarily because we can screen for them and labs offer it? What about input from patients, the public, multiple medical specialties, ethicists, social scientists, people with disabilities, and others?

• Is widespread screening for rare conditions the best use of laboratory and genetic counseling resources? Follow up of screen positive results consumes a significant amount of genetic counselor time and energy, to say nothing of patients’ anxiety and health care costs. Should these resources be focused on more pressing conditions?

• Many jobs in the genetics sector — labs and clinical providers — are dependent on the existence of genetic testing. Labs make their living off of testing but so do many genetic counselors working in clinics. While genetic counselors are not trying to push testing on patients, many genetic counseling jobs depend on the availability of genetic testing, either helping patients decide whether to have a test or explaining results to them once the testing has been completed. For better and worse, the genetic counseling profession has intimately identified itself with genetic testing. Clinics would employ far fewer prenatal, cancer, cardiogenetics, and other specialty genetic counseling jobs if there were not so many genetic tests. Think about how many clinical positions would evaporate if prenatal testing — or, really, almost any genetic testing — disappeared tomorrow. Some jobs would remain, for sure. But the demand for genetic counseling would likely drop off significantly if fewer tests were available. How much does this conflict of interest influence genetic counselors’ attitudes toward, and willingness to adopt, genetic tests, and how much does it subtly and subconsciously influence some of the strong reaction to the Times article?

• First and foremost, a patient’s decision to undergo — or not — prenatal testing should be preceded by a soul-searching exploration with partners and care providers about what parents want out of their children and addressing parental fears of disability, along with ethical and spiritual reflection. The decision requires more emotional expertise than numerical expertise. Should we be offering tests to all pregnant women that require them to master abstruse statistical knowledge in order to decide about whether to pursue testing? Even in a (unrealistic) world where all pregnant patients meet with a genetic counselor prior to testing and everything was explained in excruciating detail, many patients will misinterpret, forget, and misunderstand most of the technical information about false positives, false negatives, and distinctions between diagnostic tests and screening tests. What is the best way for patients to make medically and emotionally informed decisions? Laboratory website are less than ideal sources of information. Websites are essentially marketing tools, and marketing is antithetical to nondirectiveness. Chatbots alone don’t cut it for this purpose, although they could have an ancillary role.

• What message does it send to people with disabilities, their families, and their advocates if we continually add, seemingly willy-nilly, more and more genetic conditions to the prenatal testing list, especially, as I noted above, if they obtain no tangible benefit from testing? More testing readily begets further routinization of testing. And when you start testing lots of pregnancies for lots of conditions, you start creeping further into eugenic territory.

There are no easy solutions to any of these questions. Some may very well prove to be unanswerable and some parties will remain dissatisfied if we do manage to come up with some answers. It will involve vigorous and at times contentious debates among multiple viewpoints, and lots of people convinced that they are so damned right and why the hell can’t everybody else see that? But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking on the challenge. We may wind up with less than perfect answers, but they will be better than what we are doing now. The practice of genetic counseling demands it and patients deserve no less.

__________________________________________________________________

*- Another source of confusion here is the distinction between the false positive rate and a false positive result. The false positive rate is the number of pregnancies that do not have a condition but test positive. Thus, a lab can accurately claim that cfDNA for microdeletions has a false positive rate below 1%. You can see why a patient with a positive result might misinterpret that to mean there is over a 99% chance that her baby does indeed have a microdeletion. On the other hand, a false positive result is one specific patient’s test result which incorrectly indicates that a condition is present. Thus a patient who has a positive microdeletion result has an 80-90% chance that her baby does not have a microdeletion. Lord have mercy! You can see why pregnant patients might be confused. Then try to sort through all that while experiencing the joys of hyperemesis, or if you are a non-English speaking immigrant from a village in Central America working through an interpreter, or if you are also trying to figure out at about the same time the meaning of your rubella result, your HIV status, your nuchal thickness scan, and the results of your carrier testing.

9 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta

An offer too good to be true? Might be a kickback.

Consider this imaginary scenario from three perspectives:

#1 You are an administrator for a large healthcare system in your community that is facing a greater demand for mental health services than ever before. Qualified mental healthcare providers are in high demand leading to psychiatrists and counselors demanding higher wages; yet reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid haven’t kept up.

A well-known pharmaceutical company approaches you with a new program which includes a computer program that will interface directly with the healthcare system’s electronic medical record. This program has a suite of tools that will provide patient education, screen patients for depression and other mental health concerns and can make recommendations for treatment based on chatbots and pre-programmed algorithms. The program also allows for ease of ordering and delivery of medications, directly to the patients that are identified as possibly benefiting them. The system will check insurance benefits, handle billing, and provide education to the patient making the whole process seamless and burden-free for your clinical staff and providers. And the pharmaceutical company will provide direct access to mental health counselors and psychiatrists to take care of your patients when there are needs beyond what the chatbot and videos can provide. This is all offered to your healthcare system free of charge. This is a departure from how mental health services have been offered previously within in your healthcare system, however you are convinced that this program it would increase access to care that is desperately needed and greatly benefit your budget as well.  

#2 You are a psychiatrist that has worked in a community health practice for many years. The work is taxing and not well supported. When you were recruited by a pharmaceutical company it felt like an easy choice. The pay that was offered was nearly double what you were paid when working for community health and the perks, benefits and hours allow for a much-improved work-life balance. And with so many tools for efficiency and support, you believed that more patients would be reached in the system through access to medications than you could have ever reached through traditional clinical care.

#3 You work in business development for a pharmaceutical company. Integrating into healthcare systems with tools to boost clinic efficiency and support health care providers like free electronic mental health screening questionnaires and algorithms for treatment recommendations means that more patients will be reached, and more prescriptions will be sold. Direct access to patient information input into company tools, such as the questionnaires, as well as control over the tools and their internal algorithms mean that the company can engineer the tools to make recommendations for prescribers that will garner the highest payment from insurance payers. This direct access is solid gold in the pharmaceutical business. The salaries of psychiatrists and mental health professionals are easily paid for by a fraction of the increased revenues in prescription sales. And the opportunity to have psychiatrists and mental health counselors on the pharmaceutical company staff, to interact directly with healthcare system providers and staff as well as patients has shown to be a powerful sales tool that gives healthcare systems the confidence to utilize the company’s platform.

Could this scenario happen? If so, is there a problem with it?

Let’s first consider the positives:

  • Improved patient access for a needed service.
  • Earning potential for expert healthcare providers.
  • Pharmaceutical company is making a healthy profit (as a successful business should)

And the negatives?

  • The pharmaceutical company is essentially monopolizing prescribing for the healthcare system.
  • In the interest of profits, the pharmaceutical company is incentivized to influence prescribing to maximize reimbursement.
  • Excessive prescribing practices may result, that are not necessarily in the best interest of the patient and may incur great costs for the payers and broader health system.
  • The healthcare system is allowing sensitive patient information to be shared with the pharmaceutical company which may also raise patient privacy and data sharing concerns.

Such a scenario is ethically murky and likely would be problematic given state and federal anti-kickback statutes. While patient access to services may be increased, there is a risk that the profit interests of the pharmaceutical company would be prioritized over the best interests of the patients and the healthcare system.

The anti-kickback laws are intent-based, criminal statutes that prohibit intentional remuneration, whether monetary or in-kind, in exchange for referrals or other Federally funded health care program business.

From the Office of the Inspector General (OIG): The types of remuneration covered specifically include, without limitation, kickbacks, bribes, and rebates, whether made directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, in cash or in kind. In addition, prohibited conduct includes not only the payment of remuneration intended to induce or reward referrals of patients but also the payment of remuneration intended to induce or reward the purchasing, leasing, or ordering of, or arranging for or recommending the purchasing, leasing, or ordering of, any good, facility, service, or item reimbursable by any Federal health care program.

Further the OIG  states that remuneration to encourage referrals in health care can lead to:

  • Overutilization
  • Increased program costs
  • Corruption of medical decision making
  • Patient steering
  • Unfair competition

The above imaginary scenario could be especially problematic given the involvement of healthcare providers, psychiatrists and mental health counselors. The practice of using physicians or other health care professionals involved in direct marketing activities has been termed, “white coat” marketing. See OIG Advisory Opinion No. 11-08: “White coat marketing is closely scrutinized under the anti-kickback statute because physicians and other healthcare professionals are in an exceptional position of public trust and thus may exert undue influence when recommending health care-related items or services…Given the nature of these relationships, when physicians or other health care professionals market items and services to their patients, patients may have difficulty distinguishing between professional medical advice and a commercial sales pitch.”

How does this connect to genetic counseling?

Currently, throughout the United States, genetic testing laboratories are approaching physician clinics, hospitals, and healthcare systems with proposals to help streamline genetic services. These laboratories promise a bi-directional interface with the local EMR to ease test ordering and reporting. They provide screening tools to identify patients who meet clinical guidelines for genetic testing and videos to provide information to support pretest consent. They provide insurance authorization and billing follow-up. And they provide genetic counseling support to patients who use their tests. Furthermore, the labs are often making big claims about the potential for downstream revenue that could be generated from more genetic testing in the system in terms of imaging, risk reducing surgeries, procedures, etc. that may be recommended once high-risk patients are identified.

Could any of these complementary services, in exchange for genetic test orders, be considered an illegal kickback or remuneration? Could the complementary genetic counseling services provided to patients be considered “white-coat” marketing? 

The answer to that question may depend on if there can be a monetary value assigned to provision of genetic counseling services. And, since genetic counselors aren’t recognized under federal CMS as reimbursable, it is possible that there is no clear assignable value for genetic counseling services that would be considered a remuneration by CMS.     

Genetic counselors are often leaving clinical positions for higher paying positions with industry, and healthcare organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their own locally hired staff. This taken with the fact that healthcare systems have difficulty getting reimbursed for independent genetic counselors who are on staff with their organization, offers of complementary lab-provided genetic counseling bundled up with ease in test ordering are appealing. Labs see marketing by genetic counselors as a powerful sales tool to increase genetic test orders and offer genetic counselors attractive positions in terms of pay and other benefits. And then labs make deals with hospitals, clinics, and healthcare organizations to offer full service genetic healthcare solutions by labs that want to be the one stop shop. With companies that have an interest in selling more and more tests, and healthcare systems having a hard time retaining genetic counselors or getting reimbursed for their services, we will likely see automated processes constructed by the labs to make recommendations about test orders.

I believe genetic counselors can offer excellent services regardless of who employs them. I know that many lab-employed genetic counselors are working hard and taking great care of their patients. And I believe that the tools that the companies provide do have the potential to expand access to genetic testing. What worries me though is that this expansion of testing may not ultimately be what is best for patients and will cost the healthcare system (and thus all of us) greatly. As this landscape continue to shift, with genetic counseling being offered as an incentive to promote test orders of specific test brands, the practice of independent genetic counseling services as we have known them may soon vanish. Our ability to provide unbiased counseling that allows patients to make informed choices about what is best for them (which may not always be a genetic test) and our ability to select that best test, regardless of testing laboratory, will be a thing of the past.

Legislation has been introduced that would allow for genetic counselors to be reimbursed by Medicare, Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act of 2021 H.R. 2144 and S.1450. Medicare recognition of the genetic counseling profession is crucial to ensuring access to independent services. Please consider contacting your representatives and senators to voice your support of these important bills. Learn more here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Not Ready to Make Nice: Juggling unabashed advocacy and NSGC’s insidious culture of “nice”

Jordan Brown, MA, MS, CGC

All sentiments expressed in the essay below are completely my own and do not represent the opinions of either The Ohio State University or the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).

This essay was initially intended as a blog post for NSGC Perspectives.*

Reacting to the recent Ohio and Arizona legislative “reason bans” which prohibit abortion based on prenatal diagnosis, many of my colleagues and members of NSGC wrote to the Board about the need for the organization to respond to these developments. After multiple conversations, NSGC Leadership asked me to write a piece explaining to members that it is okay to be an unabashed advocate as an individual genetic counselor (and not under the NSGC umbrella) and that advocacy via NSGC does not need to be the only avenue through which to voice opinions and support change.

I agreed to this task in the moment, seeing it as a way to reach members and encourage participation in ongoing efforts focused on increasing access to reproductive care. But when I sat down to write, I could not do it without feeling like I’m directly supporting a culture of “nice” in our organization – in other words, a culture of being complacent and biting one’s tongue when disagreements exist. Although this culture of “nice” is not something that is unique to (the lack of) advocacy efforts around reproductive issues, I think it is especially highlighted in this sphere.

In my first year as a NSGC member, I applied for and was selected to serve on the Public Policy Committee (PPC) and thought I had found my niche. Did I know exactly what the committee did? Nope, but I was filled with optimism that this role would permit me to be involved in hard, meaningful conversations about policy-related issues with my colleagues. This was particularly important to me when considering our organization’s position on reproductive justice, and specifically regarding abortion. I was surprised to learn that the role and responsibility of the PPC was really limited to revision and reaffirmation of existing position statements, most of which, however relevant and important to our profession, tread very lightly on issues which can be perceived as “political,” such as social and reproductive justice concerns.

Throughout my time as a PPC member, I noticed a lingering sense of frustration that the committee was consistently instructed not to raise issues related to NSGC’s stance on reproductive freedom and abortion. We had a position statement on “Reproductive Freedom” that was initially composed in 2014 and reaffirmed with no edits in 2017 after an attempted revision was quashed. Is the position statement well written? Sure. Does it acknowledge the importance of autonomy in reproductive decision making? Yes. It is an adequate statement, and that is about it. It has just enough substance to be able to say we have a statement, but not enough substance to be truly meaningful or actionable in any way, shape, or form.

Conversations about whether the Reproductive Freedom statement should be reaffirmed or revised ultimately culminated in the decision, year after year, to leave the unedited 2014 statement off the PPC’s working docket. Each time, the justification for this was that any controversial moves might jeopardize the passage of our federal bill. In 2021, as I transitioned to PPC leadership, it quickly became apparent that much of the feedback was coming directly from NSGC’s [unelected] lobbyist. I will not lie, it would be easy at this point to let my emotions take over. Actually, I am going to let them take over for a second. The mansplaining emails, the gas-lighting, the rude political comments at conferences, and the long-standing bizarre seemingly patriarchal power dynamic with NSGC Leadership all feels icky and gross.

However, this is something much bigger than personal feelings. The culture of “nice” is, and historically has been, pervasive in our profession. Sure, I understand that not everyone is up for a fight. This is not about excluding or devaluing our colleagues whose personal values and convictions do not align. This is not about picking sides. It is okay for genetic counselors to not personally support abortion, in fact it is beautiful to have an opinion-diverse organization. What is not okay, however, is for the organization as a whole to place the responsibility of advocacy on the few members who are actually willing to put a target on our backs under the dismissive rhetoric of “abortion is a topic that not all members agree upon.” Additionally, let’s stop displacing the weight of this onto our patients. Obviously, we all want our patients to have autonomy in their reproductive decision-making. This does not just mean abortion; this means access to reproductive healthcare as a whole, and this is integral to our profession regardless of one’s specialty or personal values. Reproductive justice is much, much more than abortion and is inherently intersectional. J in JEDI stands for Justice. If NSGC is outwardly dedicated to JEDI efforts, NSGC must also be outwardly dedicated to reproductive justice.

Frankly, at this point it seems as if many advocacy efforts within NSGC are completely on hold pending the passage of the federal bill. Our bill is important, for so many reasons. While there are other organizations that advocate for other efforts, NSGC is the only one that is advocating for the recognition of genetic counselors by CMS. However, at what point does speaking up about a larger societal injustice (namely, decreased, and in some cases completely restricted access to abortion care) that may come with losing some (or even a lot) of support on the Hill outweigh playing the politics game? For years, members have urged NSGC leadership and the Government Relations team to speak up on the ongoing legislative efforts to decrease access to reproductive health care; to boldly state that we as an organization (whose field [clinical genetics] was born of undeniably eugenics roots) believe it is unquestionably WRONG for forced sterilizations to occur in any circumstance but particularly at the US/Mexico border; and to acknowledge that we cannot have authentic JEDI efforts without including advocating for reproductive justice. At some point, continued silence and non-action is complicity.

Most of our members have ovaries and a uterus. One of every four people with functional ovaries and uterus has an abortion during their lifetime. Do the math. As a genetic counselor who has had an abortion, our organization’s continued silence stings. I have no negative feelings or regrets about having had an abortion, however NSGC’s lack of response on the essential nature of access to abortion care is hurtful. I cannot be the only one feeling this way.

As a middle-class, white, cis-female with access to great healthcare and reasonable understanding about how to navigate the US health system, I had to travel out of state to have a second-trimester abortion. I do not feel that this is the space to discuss the details of my own experience, but I will say that the added stress of jumping through logistical hoops further intensified my own emotions at the time. This is real stuff, and this was all before the recent attention on anti-abortion legislations throughout the country.

I only disclose my own experience to highlight that it is often hard for individuals regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or gender identity to access abortion services and reproductive healthcare in general. For individuals without my resources, the challenges are more acute, and care is often inaccessible. If we are going to say that we, as NSGC, value diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, then we must advocate for access to reproductive healthcare and abortion services as an organization. We know there is power in numbers, it is far overdue that we utilize that power and use our voice to advocate for both ourselves and the patients we serve.

This essay is surely not what the NSGC Leadership expected when they asked me to write a piece on how to be an advocate outside of NSGC. It goes without saying that you should be able to be an advocate outside of NSGC. There should be no repercussions from the organization for individuals advocating for a better world as they see it, and for taking a stand and being outspoken about injustices pertaining to our profession, the medical community, and society at large. The fact that this would need to be said is problematic in and of itself. Let us disrupt the culture of “nice” within our organization so we can truly be unabashed advocates for ourselves and our patients. 

NSGC’s continued silence on this issue has not and will not go unnoticed. If you feel as though NSGC should take a clear and strong stance on reproductive justice, please consider the following action plan.

  1. Email the Board, and consider encouraging your patient advocates to email the Board. Let them know how important it is to take a firm stand on this issue.
    1. Who do I email?
      1. nsgc@nsgc.org (Attention NSGC Board of Directors)
  1. What do I include in the subject line? (Feel free to copy and paste)
    1. NSGC Advocacy for Abortion Access and Reproductive Healthcare
  1. What do I say? (Feel free to copy and paste)

Dear NSGC Leadership,

As a member of NSGC, I would like to see the organization respond directly to ongoing legislative efforts to decrease access to abortion and to advocate for reproductive healthcare. Our voice as genetic counselors on these issues is long overdue.

Thank you,

Name

  1. Take this two question survey regarding your opinions NSGC’s role in advocating for abortion access and reproductive healthcare.
  2. Advocate outside of NSGC. This list was curated with the help of Katie Sagaser, MS, CGC. The resources and suggestions listed below are just a stepping stone. Do some research regarding ongoing advocacy efforts in your state.
    1. Join the National Network of Abortion Funds (https://abortionfunds.org/) and become a monthly donor.
      1. Consider setting up a recurring donation directly to your local fund.
      1. Consider whether you might be able to support not only your local fund, but also a fund for a region to which you frequently need to refer patients. For example, the DC Abortion Fund and Baltimore Abortion Fund both provide funds to out-of-state patients traveling for abortion care in those areas.
      1. What else can you do to help support your local fund? Do you have some free time in which you could provide transportation to someone who needs a ride to their appointment? Your local fund facilitates that. Do you have a spare bedroom that you could loan to someone who needs to stay overnight before their procedure? Your local fund facilitates that. There are SO many ways to help these local funds (and independent abortion clinics, too) – usually volunteers are needed to help staff helplines, create content on Instagram and Twitter, translate documents into Spanish, and assist with fundraising.
      1. Regarding Arizona specifically: The Abortion Fund of Arizona (https://www.abortionfundofaz.org/) is a NNAF affiliate and a fantastic resource.
    1. Set up a recurring donation to SisterSong (https://www.sistersong.net/), the largest national multi-ethnic Reproductive Justice collective. SisterSong founders and leadership are truly the change makers and who we need to be looking up to in the reproductive justice space.
    1. Regarding Ohio specifically…
      1. Ohio GCs, consider donating your money and/or time to Women Have Options (https://www.womenhaveoptions.org/), which provides financial and practical assistance for abortion services.
      1. Support New Voices for Reproductive Justice (http://www.newvoicespittsburgh.org/), “a social change movement dedicated to the health and well-being of Black women and girls through leadership development, Human Rights and Reproductive Justice.”
      1. Consider referencing OPEN (http://open.osu.edu/) for current educational material and ongoing research on reproductive healthcare policy in the state of Ohio.
      1. See below for information about NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio.
    1. If you are particularly interested in public policy, you might consider joining your local NARAL Pro-Choice America chapter (they exist in CA, CT, GA, MD, MA, MI, MS, NV, NC, OH, OR, VA, WA, and WY).
      1. Sign up to take their volunteer training and join one of their committees – whether you want to ensure reproductive justice in the form of promoting comprehensive sex education in schools, contraceptive access at colleges, menstrual product access to immigrants, or health policy measures as they pertain to reproduction in your state, there is going to be a committee for you.
      1. You do NOT need to reinvent the wheel because there literally are folks whose entire jobs are devoted to this – they just need our time commitment (and usually donations don’t hurt either).
    1. The ACLU has a specific Reproductive Freedom initiative, and on their website you can sign up to donate your time in the form of hosting/organizing events, making calls, and other ways.
    1. Consider donating your time, spiritual energy, and physical presence in the form of being an abortion doula.
    1. Say the word “abortion.” Seriously, say it. Mirroring patient language is important, but the more that we avoid this term in daily life, the more that we add to its stigma. How can you speak more openly about abortion as an important and necessary component of healthcare? Can you perhaps even invite some of these conversations by carrying an “abortion is healthcare” tote bag to the grocery store, or wearing an “abortion is healthcare” mask to the gym?

Be on the lookout for the launch of the GENUINE Collective: Genetics Providers United in Efforts for Reproductive Justice. This Collective will serve as a landing page for advocacy resources and opportunities as well as an open discussion forum for members.

The GENUINE Collective is an independent group of clinical genetics professionals dedicated to shameless advocacy for reproductive justice in the United States of America and beyond.

While persons involved in the Collective may hold memberships in various professional medical societies, the Collective is not, in any way, affiliated with professional medical societies.

*Previously I said NSGC Perspective’s declined to publish this article, NSGC has asked me to retract this statement, I would like to clarify that while I never received a written rejection from NSGC, they did not respond to the submission (after requesting an essay with a quick turnaround time), only responded after author follow-up, and stated that this piece was not in line with the goal of Perspectives.

30 Comments

Filed under Guest Blogger

What A Mess

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.   – Apocryphal quote, likely incorrectly attributed to George Bernard Shaw

A South Carolina court recently granted a summary judgment in favor of the defendant in the case of Williams v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., Athena Diagnostics, Inc,  ADI Diagnostics, Inc.  The ruling is particularly relevant to the genetics profession because it concerns the potential legal implications of the classification of genetic variants.

This legal odyssey began nearly 5 years ago but the clinical story began 14 years ago, and was first reported here on The DNA Exchange. Briefly, Amy Williams, the plaintiff, filed a suit in 2016 on behalf of her deceased son alleging negligence on the part of Athena (now owned by Quest) when in 2007 it classified a variant in the SCN1A gene as a Variant of Uncertain Significance (VUS) in her son who had a seizure disorder. SCN1A pathogenic variants are diagnostic for Dravet syndrome.

Multiple specialists were involved in the child’s care, but it seems from the medical records that none of them were actually aware of the genetic test results. The ordering physician could not recall having seen the report and the treating physicians never received a copy of the report or a communication from the ordering physician about the result, even though a copy of the report is in the medical records. Consequently, her son’s treating physician kept him on carbamazepine, a sodium channel blocker that is contra-indicated in children with Dravet syndrome. Sadly, he died about 6 months later, likely due to the contraindicated medication. Ms. Williams did not find out about the SCN1A result until nearly 7 years after the report was issued, and then only after a genetic counselor who was sifting through the records found a note from 2008 referring to an SCN1A VUS (for a fuller description of this saga, I refer you to the excellent articles written by Turna Ray, a journalist for Genome Web).

The lab’s defense rested on a legal technicality of the statute of limitations. Per South Carolina law, litigation cannot be brought against a healthcare provider if the offense took place more than 3 years prior to the filing. The lab’s lawyers argued, and in 2018 the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed, that a lab qualifies as a healthcare provider under state law. Subsequently, Judge Margaret Seymour, the judge who presided over the original case (and who displayed an excellent grasp of the genetic and legal issues), found that several of the plaintiff’s claims were “comprised of allegations sounding in both medical malpractice and ordinary negligence” and allowed the matter to move to discovery for the purpose of determining what caused Athena’s laboratory staff to misclassify the gene variant. Ms. Williams and her lawyers proceeded with the case based on “claims for wrongful death, survival, negligent misrepresentation, constructive fraud, and violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act.” Following discovery, the defendants requested a summary judgment to dismiss the case (in a summary judgment, either a plaintiff or a defendant can assert that the facts in the case are not in question and ask the judge to make a decision on the case without a full trial). 

Judge Seymour based her decision on the statute of limitations ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court and the likely inability to prove proximate cause (i.e., that the VUS classification led to continued treatment with carbamazepine which then caused the child’s death), and dismissed the case: “The court concludes that no reasonable jury could find Defendants erred in classifying Decedent’s variant as a VUS, or that any misclassification was the result of nonmedical, administrative, ministerial, or routine care. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted as to this issue.”

In an unfortunately cruel twist, Ms. Williams and her lawyers may owe Quest and its lawyers ~$140,000 in court sanctions imposed after some personal emails and other documents that, in my view likely had little bearing on the facts of the case, were deleted or improperly withheld because of less than stellar legal representation. The defendant’s lawyers offered to drop the costs stemming from sanctions if Ms. Williams agreed not to discuss the case in public forums and to discourage others from doing so. However, she did not agree to the proposal and remains firm in her belief that her son’s story needs to be discussed in public for the benefit of the public and the genetics profession, even in the face of potential financially ruin.

Was Athena’s original variant classification appropriate? Published case reports at the time the interpretation was first issued suggested that the SCN1A variant could be likely pathogenic (that was not the common terminology at the time), one of which was co-authored by Athena staff. Yet comments in the test report state there is an “absence of published studies correlating these variant(s) with clinical presentation and/or pathology.” In April of 2009, 2 years after the report was issued, Athena reclassified the variant as pathogenic, although they cited no new evidence beyond what was available when the report was first issued. Specialists in variant classification, who understand the intricacies of variant classification far better than I do, have weighed in and most have argued that Athena’s original classification of a VUS was appropriate for the knowledge available in 2007. Currently there are two entries for this variant in ClinVar, neither of which make an attempt at classification. I am not about to get into a debate with good scientists who know a heck of a lot more than I do about variant classification. I will say this, though, as someone who orders genetic testing every day, I rely heavily on labs to interpret variants and to let me know when there is in a result that might be grayer than ordinary. Especially in a case where a treatment decision with life and death implications hinges on a test result, I would expect the lab to explain their justification for the interpretation and to have made it clear in writing in the report. A phone call to the ordering provider wouldn’t hurt either, to be sure that the critical information and any uncertainty is clearly communicated.

Just as egregious, Ms. Williams should not have learned of a genetic test result almost 7 years after it was issued, and then only almost incidentally. Nor does it appear that the physicians who cared for the child were aware of the updated classification or communicated it to one another – not surprising, given that they were apparently unaware of the original report. Had she been notified in a timely manner, she may have initiated a discussion of why the variant was classified this way and if the evidence was strong enough to be the basis for treatment decisions. Of course this burden should not be on the patient but it could have offered another opportunity for further exploring treatment decisions based on the result. Many of us in the medical field, including me, have been critical of the requirement of the 21st Century CURES Act to notify patients of test results within 24 hours of when they are ready. My grumbling aside, Amy Williams and her son would have greatly benefited from being notified of her son’s result 24 hours after it were available. Does it have to take an Act of Congress to ensure that healthcare providers are responsible communicators with their patients?

In my view, nothing good came of this case in terms of the reputation of the genetics community, though of course nowhere near as bad as the devastating effects for Amy Williams and her son. To resurrect the line from the Captain’s speech in the movie “Cool Hand Luke“, what we have here is failure to communicate. Basically, a child may have died prematurely because of poor communication between the lab and care providers, between care providers, between care providers and the patient’s mother, and between the lab and the patient’s mother. Everybody lost and nobody won, even if Athena/Quest won from the perspective of not having to pay damages.

Will we now become better at communicating results to patients? Perhaps the CURES Act will help some. But as genetic testing expands well beyond the genetics community, communication about the implications of test results will likely still be deficient in many instances, in part because many non-specialists who order genetic tests are not particularly adept at interpreting them. Furthermore, although it’s hats’ off to ClinVar and other collaborative efforts for classify variants, variant classification will continue to be an Achilles’ heel of genome analysis because there is just no profit in it and it can be so damned complicated. 

I look back on this story and feel a knot in my stomach.

11 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta

When Good Genetic Counselors Are Bad Role Models

I will be retiring at the end of this year. In a natural reflex triggered at career’s end, I have been reflecting on my 37+ years as a genetic counselor. Among other things, I have been pondering what traits make for a good genetic counselor, what makes us better or worse at our jobs. So far, I have not come up with brilliant insights that would vastly improve professional practice.

Except maybe this one – we are sometimes not so good at asking for help from one another in our workplaces or saying “No” to more work when our workloads are already overwhelming. We, who are so dedicated to helping others, are not so good at helping ourselves.

Many of us are guilty of this sin to varying degrees and in different ways. Sure I’ll see that last minute add-on at 4:30 today even though I  came in early and had planned on leaving at 3:30. If I come in to the office over the weekend, I can catch up on my dictations. I can’t refuse the last minute ask by my boss for an analysis of clinic data over the last 3 years for a presentation she is giving tomorrow, even though I have a full patient load. That patient has a busy schedule; I told him I would come in an hour early to accommodate his schedule. Or worst of all, coming in to work when you’re sick because “it’s just so busy”; just what the colleagues need, a super-spreader (maybe one good thing that has come out of the awful COVID epidemic is that people may now be more willing to use their PTO when they are sick).

Part of the reason we are so willing to overwork ourselves is that genetic counselors are uniformly compassionate people. We care deeply about our patients and we want to do our best to help them through difficult times. If we didn’t, we would never have made it past the gatekeepers of the profession, the ones who decide who does or doesn’t get admitted to or stay in the training programs. Compassion and empathy were in the vows we took when we wed ourselves to the genetic counseling profession (back in the day, we OGC’s – Original Genetic Counselors – also took a vow of poverty but fortunately nowadays that vow has been dropped from the list).

But I think there is another reason that contributes to our inability to just say no – professional insecurity and professional self-image. Deep down, we like to think of ourselves as superheroes. We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we are not indestructible superheroes capable of withstanding the forces that attack us and test our strength as we fly to the rescue of our patients, or for others to think we are vulnerable. Asking for help is our kryptonite.

 

We worry too that our genetic counseling colleagues will think the less of us if we say to them “You know, I am starting to fall behind in my work. Could someone else see one of my patients today?” Or that we might look less than compassionate if we say to a patient or a referring provider “I would ordinarily squeeze in this last minute referral. But there just isn’t enough room in my schedule today to accommodate your request.” These kinds of responses can gnaw at your image of your professional self and make you feel inferior. After all, you look around and your other colleagues seem pretty busy too but they aren’t saying no to extraordinary demands. Maybe I am not as a good a genetic counselor as they are. So instead, you wind up sucking it up and taking on the extra work.

This is an insidious frame of mind. It contributes to professional burnout and compassion fatigue. After a while, you just can’t take it anymore. Which nearly  happened to me some 5 or 6 years ago when I came within a heartbeat of walking away from the profession. One of my great strengths as a genetic counselor is that I am incredibly efficient. Which is also my great weakness; my ability to get things done led to greater workloads as it seemed that I could absorb nearly any workload. I finally told my boss that either I get more help immediately or I’m outta’ here. A gamble, but it paid off. I got the help I needed lickety-split and today I work with 3 terrific genetic counseling colleagues. I became a more human superhero for having done it.

The problem propagates itself across generations when you realize that we, consciously or unconsciously, are role models for younger counselors and students. They see us burdening ourselves with ridiculous work loads. Even if we tell them to not do as we have done, they subconsciously get the message that this is the way good genetic counselors are supposed to be. They admire us and want to, if not exactly be clones of us, fashion themselves into some approximate image of us based mostly on our actions, not our words. Unfortunately, the role models put up a damned good front.

Sure, some of this stems from management, who unfailingly claim there is a budget crisis and who seem to have an ingrained belief that there is one too many staff around here or that more patients can miraculously be shoehorned into a schedule. That part of the blame is on them and their out-of-clinical-touch mindthink. But a goodly part of the blame is on ourselves. We will never get help if we don’t ask for it. And we can start by asking for help from each other. Even if your colleagues are just as busy and can’t help you out, it becomes an opportunity for everyone to acknowledge or realize that we don’t have to be the Justice League of Genetic Counseling, always ready to save the genetic universe. We are, at the end of the day, imperfect humans trying to make super-human efforts. If we can’t always save the day, we are not failures. If we embrace this, we will be better genetic counselors.

 

On another topic altogether, with the help of Emily Singh I have created a pair of graphics to reinforce the message that masks are symbols of compassion, not repression, and to urge my American readers to vote in the upcoming election. Remember – many superheroes wear masks. This is one way we can help save the world without adding to our workload.

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

Filed under Robert Resta

JOAN H. MARKS 

In Memoriam

1929-2020

Of all the pioneers who helped shape the field of genetic counseling, it is likely that no one was more influential than Joan H. Marks, who died on September 14th at the age of 91.  In 1972, when Joan took over the 3-year-old program at Sarah Lawrence College that now bears her name, there was no accrediting body, no national society, no Journal of Genetic Counseling.  She stayed for 26 years, a dominating and charismatic presence, often intimidating, often demanding – a fierce advocate for both genetic counselors and their patients, who she insisted deserved more than a lecture on chromosomes and recessive inheritance.  

When your friends and relatives ask you, as they still do, ‘what is a genetic counselor?’ the answer you provide, whether you know it or not, is an echo of Joan’s vision, distilled in a generation of students who went on to define their roles in workplaces across the country, to found NSGC and ABGC, and to serve as teachers and program directors in their turn, passing along the ethos that remains integral to the field.  

I met Joan when I interviewed at Sarah Lawrence in 1999, when she was very much the eminence grise.  “I imagine you’ll get in,” she said to me, looking over my transcript with a practiced air, and I was thrilled – an excitement that was immediately tempered when she mentioned that she would not be sticking around to educate this new class of genetic counselors.  As a charter member of the post-Joan-Marks generation of Sarah Lawrence alums, I can attest to the lingering effects of her legacy.  

Still, devoted former students have told me over the years that I was unlucky not to have known her better.  No doubt this is true (and no offense to Caroline Lieber, who inherited the mantle at Sarah Lawrence and was a great program director in her own right).  So today I would like to invite all of you who knew Joan Marks as a student or a colleague or a friend to treat this post as a sort of an invitation and add your reminiscences here.  

First up, a lovely tribute form Caroline Lieber herself, who talks about her experience filling some very big shoes in the world of genetic counseling.  I hope that many others will fill the comments.

Joan Marks: One of a kind

Caroline Lieber, MS, CGC Director Emeritus, Sarah Lawrence College Joan H Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics

I met Joan Marks in February 1978.  My then-boyfriend and I flew to New York and then took the train to the Sarah Lawrence campus, two California kids in New York for the first time.  He waited outside of Morrill House while she and I “talked.”  It felt more like she talked and I listened.  After the interview I said, “I am not sure that went so well….” 

But when I called my parents from South America that July to check-in, my father excitedly said, “You got accepted at Sarah Lawrence!” My boyfriend and I packed our meager belongings and headed east. Two California kids in New York for the second time. We arrived two weeks before classes were scheduled to start.  I was going to be a genetic counselor!

Having been undergraduate genetics major, I was comfortable in the science courses. The psychology courses were a different story.  As our instructor for “Issues in Genetic Counseling,” Joan had us read broadly about ethical concerns, the depth of emotional responses to genetic conditions in families, and articles to help identify counseling techniques and how to use them.  She commented in detail on each paper we wrote.  In one paper I found recently, she pointed out some inconsistencies in my thinking.  She further remarked, “But what’s good is that you see yourself as a counselor and you see how tough it can be. I’d like you to reread what you’ve written carefully and try to be objective-aren’t you inserting some biases here and there?” Her critique was not always welcome, but she always made me reflect on each point she made, and to look at it from another view.  I learned to be more empathic in a tough-love way. I am proud of the genetic counselor I became under her direction.

Fast forward to 1998. I discovered that Joan was planning to retire from Sarah Lawrence. I applied for the director position, and went through rigorous interviews.  I recall the pointed questions, some designed to make the interviewee a bit uncomfortable, as a means of gauging responses to tough situations. Even though she wasn’t in the room, it was clear that Joan was part of the process. Fortunately for me, I was selected.

Following in Joan’s footsteps was daunting.  Those early months felt exciting and overwhelming as I learned a whole new landscape.  Not surprisingly, Joan had very definitive ideas about the future of the program and often wanted to share her thoughts.  As my advisor and mentor, I made a point of responding to her calls and emails, listening to her guidance and counsel.  As it was when I was a student, I was not always in sync with her thoughts, but I learned to incorporate many of her suggestions. As I gained confidence in my role, I learned to trust my instincts and experiences to find my own personality in the position.  When in time, Joan told me that I was doing a good job, letting me know that she approved of my leadership, it meant a great deal to me.

During my tenure as program director, our relationship grew on many levels.  Joan and I grew together professionally as we worked on several commemorative events. When the program was renamed in Joan’s honor, it was a proud day for the college and the Joan H Marks Graduate Program in Human Genetics.  After I moved into New York City, we grew closer personally, sharing life outside of the program.  We met for lunch and talked about some of her other interests, including art and gardening. I got to know her softer side.

Joan Marks was the most committed and passionate advocate for the genetic counseling field that I have ever known.  As Laura Hercher said, “I doubt any other single individual did as much to shape the field.”  She put the profession on the map with style, charm, directness and savvy.  It was my privilege to be her student and mentee.  It was my pleasure to be her friend.

5 Comments

Filed under Laura Hercher