Tag Archives: genetic counselors

Is Down Syndrome Disappearing? Well, Not Exactly But….

Iceland has given the world the Eddas, Sigur Rós, Björk, and some magnificent geology.  A more ambiguous achievement, though, is suggested by a recent CBS News story that claimed that Down syndrome is disappearing from Iceland as a result of prenatal testing. The claim has been bouncing around the Internet for a few years. The earliest reference I could find was a November, 2015 letter sent to the Office of The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights authored by Downpride, an international advocacy group for people with Down syndrome. The letter is an “[a]ppeal to the United Nations to stop discriminatory use of prenatal genetic screening aimed at eradication of people with Down syndrome and other groups.” It was, in my view, an understandable and justifiable reaction to largely non-critical widespread adoption of Noninvasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) from a community that has good reason to be concerned. Needless to say, it generated a lot of heated reaction. Just Google “Iceland Down syndrome” and you will see what I mean.

Delving into the story was like getting lost in a hall of mirrors; many sites simply referenced each other. But the claim that Down syndrome is disappearing from Iceland and that 100% of pregnancies with Down syndrome in Iceland are terminated turns out to be not quite so straight-forward. While Iceland represents a microcosm of the larger concerns of people with disabilities, their families, and their supporters, it is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the macrocosm of the larger population dynamics of Down syndrome in other countries, particularly the United States.

The ultimate source of the data, according to the Downpride letter, was testimony presented to The Althing, the Icelandic parliament that is the world’s longest existing legislative body. I tried unsuccessfully to find that testimony. I then searched PubMed but found only limited help. So I decided to do my own back-of-the-napkin calculations. I obtained the birth distribution by maternal age in Iceland for 2016, and grouped the ages by quinquennia. The expected frequency of Down syndrome was based on data from 1976, prior to the advent of widespread prenatal diagnosis.

Age Group # of Births Exp. Frequency of Down S. Exp. # of births with Down S.
15-19 72 1/1667 0
20-24 592 1/1587 0.37
25-29 1305 1/1087 1.2
30-34 1218 1/763 1.6
35-39 672 1/248 2.7
40-44 165 1/79 2
45+ 10 1/24 0.4
Total 4034  1/488 8.27

 

Thus, in Iceland in 2016, there were 4034 births. In the absence of prenatal diagnosis and selective termination, 8 or 9 babies with Down syndrome would be born, for a frequency of ~1/450-500 births. I then made the following assumptions, acknowledging that each has some potential error:

  • Based on a 2016 publication, about 80% of pregnant Icelandic women will choose to undergo prenatal screening
  • According to Dr. Hulda Hjartardóttir, chief of obstetrics at Iceland’s National University Hospital, among Icelandic woman who have a positive screen, about 25% decline diagnostic testing and continue the pregnancy. Thus, roughly 1/3 of Icelandic pregnant women either do not undergo screening to begin with or decide to continue the pregnancy and not proceed to diagnostic testing if a screening test is positive. The impact of these percentages on Down syndrome frequency depends on the age distribution of those who declined screening or diagnostic testing, but for argument’s sake, I assumed an equal distribution across maternal ages.
  • 100% of women whose pregnancies are diagnosed with Down syndrome will choose to terminate. I could not verify this claim, but I decided to go with the most extreme scenario. This has not been the experience in many countries, where termination rates have been high but not typically 100%.
  • The CBS News story mentions the Combined Screen, so I assumed this was the standard screening test in Iceland when the claims were made in The Althing. I therefore set the detection rate for Down syndrome to 90%, that is, of all women undergoing screening, about 10% of pregnancies with Down syndrome will be screen normal and would not proceed to termination (some studies suggest that the Combined Screen may have a sensitivity somewhat less than 90% but because about 21% of pregnancies in Iceland occur in women 35 and older, a higher sensitivity – and false positive – rate is expected).

Based on these assumptions and the above table, of the potential 8-9 babies born with Down syndrome, about 2-3 would actually be born because their mothers did not undergo either prenatal screening or diagnostic testing, and another baby with Down syndrome would be born because the Combined Screen would be expected to miss about one case. In other words, the total number of newborns with Down syndrome in Iceland would be expected to drop from 8-9 every year to about 3, maybe 4, per year. These numbers could increase or decrease with many factors, such as changes in fertility rates, maternal age distribution, the sensitivity of screening tests, social trends that influence the choice of abortion, and random fluctuations that occur with any demographic trend especially with the small number of births in Iceland (about that many babies were born last year in the hospital where I work in Seattle). If readers know of empirical data from Iceland to support or refute my estimates, please share it.

Of course, for advocates, every loss of a pregnancy with Down syndrome is serious, no matter how small the number. But these estimates put the concerns in some perspective. Among other things, it is fair to say that most, but not 100%, of pregnancies with Down syndrome are terminated in Iceland, and the birth prevalence of Down syndrome in Iceland is falling considerably but not likely, in my view, to disappear entirely.

I think a more realistic picture of the impact of prenatal screening on Down syndrome, in the US at least, is provided by Brian Skotko and his colleagues Frank Buckley, Jennifer Dever, and Gert de Graaf in a recent publication in the American Journal of Medical Genetics. Over the last few years, they have consistently provided some of the most reliable estimates of the demographics of Down syndrome and the effects of prenatal screening.

According to the de Graaf et al. paper, a detailed look at changes over time in the demographics of Down syndrome in 9 states, the number of people living with Down syndrome has steadily increased since 1950. The two major factors driving that growth have been longer survival due to better medical care along with the unrelenting trend of the last 35-40 years of delayed childbearing. This growth, however, has been partially offset by a loss of births with Down syndrome due to prenatal screening. The loss varies with geographic region, but overall, the prevalence of Down syndrome is roughly 70% of what it would be if prenatal screening were not available. Interestingly, the most growth in the Down syndrome population occurred among Hispanics and Native Americans. So, unlike the near elimination of Tay-Sachs disease in many Ashkenazi Jewish communities, the prevalence of Down syndrome is dropping, but not close to disappearing, at least in the US.

Other factors may affect the Down syndrome birth frequency, such as changes in maternal age distribution, availability of abortion, and access to health insurance. For example, in the highly unlikely event that every woman 35 and older refrained from pregnancy, the birth frequency of Down syndrome in the US and many Western European countries would be reduced by more than 50%. On the other hand, if abortion were to become illegal (not highly unlikely), then presumably the birth frequency of Down syndrome would increase. Limiting access to good medical care (unfortunately also not highly unlikely in the US) could lower the overall prevalence of Down syndrome because of reduced survival.

Current trends suggest that, for the immediate future, prenatal screening will continue to reduce the birth prevalence of Down syndrome. It is becoming increasingly easier for women to undergo prenatal screening and more difficult to just say no. This is due to aggressive marketing by commercial labs of “newer, better, bigger, cheaper” screening tests like NIPT; the dearth of time and resources devoted to unbiased education about Down syndrome and the pros and cons of screening tests; inequitable social distribution of medical resources and social support; and the rarity of long, difficult discussions between pregnant women/couples and their providers about whether they should even enter the prenatal screening cascade to begin with. It also does not help matters that the current US President lacks any moral decency and takes pleasure in mocking people with disabilities.

Although I am a strong supporter of women’s reproductive rights and well-informed, gut-wrenching decisions to terminate a pregnancy, it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide ethical justification for further expansion of prenatal screening, or expanded carrier screening for that matter. This is something that society needs to address but particularly genetic counselors because we are in the thick of it.

As I have previously argued, almost no research has been conducted that has tried to demonstrate whether prenatal screening can improve the medical, social, and emotional lives of people with disabilities and their families. Some women undergo prenatal screening because they think it will prepare them for raising a child with Down syndrome, but we really can’t tell them if screening does help or if it is worth their emotional and psychological investment. Carrying out such research is critical. If we can demonstrate broader benefit of prenatal screening, then we can open up a dialogue with the disability community rather than continue the shouting matches, and offer greater and more equitable justification for NIPT and other screening technologies.

Or we can continue shouting at or dismissing one another.

 

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Euphemisms, Chucklers, Pet Peeves, And Wincers: Thoughts On Our Professional Vocabulary

Words are the clothes thoughts wear.

– Samuel Beckett

I struggle with words. I struggle when I counsel patients to find just the right words to explain genetic complexity while also trying to engage them in a counseling relationship. I sometimes catch myself silently groaning at the stream of what sounds like the absolutely wrong choice of words pouring out of my mouth. I wind up feeling like the voice of the parents in those Charlie Brown cartoon specials; just Wah-Wah-Wah, nonsense utterances that have no meaning or relevance to the central characters. I struggle to understand the psychological meaning of the words patients use to express their thoughts, fears, anxieties, understandings, and misunderstandings. I agonize over these blog postings, repeatedly re-working them until they have the right tone and tenor but still I always feel slightly dissatisfied with some detail of the never-quite-finished product. A close friend says that for him the wrong word is like a flat note in a musical composition. One jarring note and it takes a while for your ear to re-adjust.

So yes, I confess that I am overly obsessed with words. It is yet one more of those Devil-and-Angel aspects of my personality. Good and bad must co-exist else neither exists at all. That obsession is the impetus for this blog posting – exploring the deeper meanings, ramifications, and implications of the vocabulary of genetics, medicine, and reproduction.

I start with words that make me wince. I have previously written about products of conception, habitual aborter, and mutant. Let me add incompetent cervix and birth defect to that list. Even though these words are not used with dark intent, they say a lot about underlying unconscious attitudes and biases. Incompetent cervix is clearly a term created by men for women. Would a man who has difficulty attaining or maintaining an erection ever be said to have an incompetent penis? Birth defect is no better, though in all honesty I catch myself using it from time to time. Just another malfunctioning piece of machinery, a mistake, a reject, an inferior product of conception. And don’t get me started on crack babies. These are all judgmental and harmful words, weaponized to induce blame, shame, and guilt.

In some contexts, benign words can be manipulative, such as high risk. Every patient has a unique and flexible definition of high. But when professionals say high risk it can create a disproportional sense of worry and anxiety. For example, it is often said women 35 and older are at high risk of having a baby with Down syndrome. You can try to soften that by saying higher but the patient mostly hears the high part of that word. In fact, though, the chance that a 38-year-old woman will not have a baby with an aneuploidy is 99%. Those are pretty good odds in my book. But the presumably unconscious and unstated attitude of health care providers is that aneuploidy is an unacceptable outcome – a risk, not a probability – when they show a woman a graph or table displaying age related odds without an objective reference point to put the numbers in context. That is a lot scarier than reframing it as barely 1%, as well as sounding like an unstated scolding – “Well, if you hadn’t waited so long to have a baby, you wouldn’t have this problem.”

Some words are euphemisms. Family balancing – using reproductive technologies to choose the sex of a baby for non-medical reasons – comes to mind. It is fine and normal to want a baby of a particular gender. There are also different cultural imperatives and norms, and complicated psychological reasons why a particular gender is strongly desired.Calling it balancing glosses over the darker implications of reinforcing, and profiting from, sexism. And it implies that a family of all girls, all boys, or varying gender mixes might be out of balance.

Family balancing is a cousin to gender swaying. At first I honestly thought it referred to someone like David Bowie who seemed to fluidly float along the gender spectrum. As I have come to learn, gender swaying describes the practice of trying to increase the odds of having a baby of a particular gender by using folk methods and pseudoscientific techniques, like ovulation timing, cervical PH, and, my personal favorite, positive and negative ions in the air that can be affected by artificial lighting (just why would artificial lighting be found, uh, “down there”?). Somehow it seems more ethically innocuous than family balancing, maybe because the success rate is usually not statistically significantly greater than 50%. But family balancing and gender swaying are on the same moral spectrum. Another euphemistic term is fetal reduction, which neutrally smooths over the rougher ethical edges when a medical procedure transforms a quadruplet pregnancy into a twin pregnancy.

In genetic counseling, we try to reciprocally engage our patients to make the experience more counseling than lecturing. But there is still an underlying power dynamic that can sneak between the cracks and that can remind the patient who is in charge. An example is when we say that we take a family history. Although it is not how we intend to use the word, taking implies that I have the power to assume ownership of story that belongs to the patient, a story that is deeply personal. And by taking it, I now own this intimate knowledge and transform it into something that I reframe into a medical context that gives me power by “interpreting” it for the patient. The message can be “I know what you think about your family history, but let me tell you what it really means.” Perhaps too this power differential  underlies some of the unease many genetic counselors have about Direct To Consumer genetic testing – it diminishes our gatekeeper role of controlling access to genetic testing.

Along those lines, think of the power relationship implied by medical consultation notes that state that the patient denies a family history of genetic disease or drug use or certain symptoms. Denies? Like they are suspected of lying or a criminal activity, and I am the Grand Inquisitor trying to drag the truth out of them? Were these patients ever expecting the Spanish Inquisition?

Not all of my vocabulary pondering is dark. Some reflect my personal pet peeves on usage. I am not a Language Fascist who tries to enforce arbitrary grammatical rules because, dammit, that’s the right way. On the contrary, I love language for its variety, constant evolution, playfulness, and wonderfully creative adaptability. But a few words rub me the wrong way. Pre-existing condition is an ear-sore for me. How can something be pre- to existing? Either something exists or it doesn’t. They are existing conditions. Of course, this mild upset is nothing compared to the outrage I feel at the pig-headed, uninformed, downright nasty views about pre-existing conditions expressed by the President of the United States and his lackey Director of the Office of Management and Budget, they who are too shameful to be named. Now there’s a pair of bad hombres you’d love to rope with Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. Another “earitation” is when someone writes “The patient was told to return in 3 weeks time.” In that sentence, the word time belongs in the Department of Redundancy Department; the same information is communicated if the word is omitted. For my internal ear, it is a jarring note.

Another, perhaps more justifiable, pet peeve is when an author or speaker says something along the lines of “there was a 500% reduction in disease occurrence following this intervention” or “a five fold reduction in occurrence.” Sorry, just flat out impossible. Nothing can be reduced by more than 100% or 1 fold. After that, it ceases to exist (unless of course it were pre-existing) or it becomes an imaginary number*. If the number of cases of a disease decreases from 500 patients to 100 patients, that is an 80% reduction. Or there are one fifth of the number of cases that occurred prior to the intervention. And I don’t believe I am being a kvetcher here. Accuracy in statistical analysis and interpretation is at the very core of the scientific process and discourse, so it is critical to use the right words to describe research results.

There are some words that make me smile when I hear them, such as Captain Underpants’ arch-nemesis Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants or HMS Boaty McBoatface (okay, they have nothing to do with genetic counseling but even if your inner mind is not permanently mired like mine in the 8 year old boy phase, these names make you chuckle). Similarly, I smile when I hear surgeons describe large breasts as generous. How nice that someone has generous breasts! It almost sounds like a description of a wet nurse. A long time favorite is Instant Baby Formula, which I first encountered 45 years ago when I was a stock clerk at a Brooklyn grocery store. Just add water, and Voila! You have a baby. What could be simpler? None of the icky bother of 9 months of pregnancy or the agonies of labor.

I would love to hear from the Good Readers of The DNA Exchange about their thoughts on the vocabulary of genetics and medicine. What in our professional lexicon makes you irritated, raises your moral hackles, induces euphemistic groans, or you just enjoy? Given the widespread employment of genetic  counselors in laboratories, is there some new Lab Vocab starting to emerge?

As Raymond Carver once wrote in a NY Times piece, “That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they better be the right ones.” So let us make sure we think carefully about them, choose and use them wisely, never weaponize them, and remember to enjoy them.


  • – Yes, I know that this is not technically an imaginary number. I am just employing poetic license.

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Who Decides?

The past decade has seen an evolution in the way that new genetic tests become incorporated into clinical practice. Historically, genetic tests such as amniocentesis, CVS, AFP screening, newborn screening, and ethnic-based carrier screening were introduced after undergoing government-funded studies conducted by academic and clinical institutions. This research was typically supplemented by exploration of the ethical and socio-economic issues generated by new technologies and engaging the principal players in the at-risk community in open discussion. This may have resulted in a slower clinical integration of novel technologies but the net result was better patient care because the technology’s strengths, limits, and ethical and socio-economic implications were more clearly defined before the testing was offered routinely. Not to say that this approach was perfect. Recall the problems that arose when sickle cell carrier screening was introduced only to become entangled in the thorn-bush of racial politics and racial history.

Commercial interests played less of a role in such decisions in part because the tests generated lower profits due to their labor-intensiveness (think about the time spent in counting chromosomes and hand cutting and pasting karyotypes or running Southern blots), had limited target populations due to the rarity of most genetic disorders, and could be costly. There just weren’t that many large-scale genetic testing labs out there.

Now, however, genetic testing is cheaper, more profitable, less labor-intensive, and has a wider proposed target population – every pregnant woman, many people with cancer or who are at hereditary risk (maybe only 10% of breast cancer patients are appropriate candidates for hereditary testing but most of those patients have a lot of relatives), every woman, and, as with the aim of some direct to consumer (DTC) tests, everyone. Genetic labs pop up left and right, merge, expand, are bought out, and otherwise engage in business. Twenty years ago, trying to find a lab to run a genetic test could involve hours of detective work and secret word of mouth sources. Now labs are knocking on our doors cajoling and pleading for our patients’ samples. While most labs are deeply concerned about patients and are well-intentioned, they are also equally concerned about profits. Money-making, after all, is why businesses exist so it is no surprise that labs have started to take a more active role in introducing new genetic tests. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to genetics. It has been going on in medical care for decades, and genetics is just starting to catch up. It is also reflective of the growing trend in the health care industry to refer to patients as consumers of medical care and to implement customer service based patient care models.

Several genetic tests come to mind here – expanded carrier screening, offering noninvasive prenatal testing (NIPT*) to low risk pregnant women, multigene cancer panels, and SNP-based DTC testing. These tests worked their way into patient care after aggressive sales tactics and questionable advertising claims helped amplify the demand. This was further driven by competition between clinics to offer the latest and greatest tests to their patients, the general eagerness of genetic counselors to seek genetic answers for their patients, and patient word-of-mouth networks. About the only counter-balance has been a reluctance on the part of health insurers to cover new and unproven testing. Most of my patients want that new genetic test but only if their insurance company covers it, although low-cost labs like Color Genomics are challenging this limitation.

To some degree, patients can benefit from these tests but not necessarily to the extent that one might think. 23andMe states that their product should not be used for clinical decision-making – at least for now – while at the same time offering “wellness reports” and “genetic snapshots of your health.” This sounds to me like clever ad copy to deflect regulatory concerns about health claims while at the same time suggesting that the product is an important aspect of everyone’s medical care. Supporters of expanded carrier screening acknowledge its limitations in terms of  studies on net health benefits and cost effectiveness but still offer the test routinely and subtly suggest that the test is standard when they claim that they work directly with a network of over 6,000 health care professionals. NIPT may soon become an appropriate test for all pregnant women, but this conclusion should be driven by independent studies conducted outside of the commercial sector. Multigene cancer panels have shown some benefits, but not nearly as much as many clinicians had hoped for.

I am grateful for the valuable contributions that labs have made to patient care. Quicker turn around times, incredible help with verifying insurance coverage, and highly knowledgeable genetic counseling staff who happily share time and considerable expertise in interpreting complicated results. 23andMe provides far better patient education materials than any single genetic counselor or clinical institution or professional organization could ever hope to create. And 23andMe was several steps ahead of everyone in facilitating patient connections to researchers and each other as well as when the company made raw data available to consumers. I never anticipated that patients would have wanted such level of detail. Along those lines, note the recent complaint filed wit the Office of Civil Rights against Myriad in which several patients assert that their HIPAA rights were violated because they claimed that Myriad would not share all of the genetic variants that were detected, including those that are considered benign or clinically insignificant. Clearly I am still time-stuck in the era when couples were ecstatic to receive a karyotype of their unborn baby and I can’t remember a single patient requesting records of all their amniotic fluid metaphase spreads and cell counts.

Of course, introducing new tests before they are ready for prime time is just part and parcel of living in a market driven society. The context is much larger than the genetics niche or even medical care in general. Labs and competitive clinics should not be faulted for engaging in behavior that is widely condoned elsewhere. Nor should all blame be placed squarely on the shoulders of labs. Everyone needs to be engaged in this process. It is not just the buck dancer’s choice, my friend. Labs can put the brakes on new tests a bit. Clinicians and labs need to form better relationships while tests are in development. Labs need to step back while independently funded research verifies claims of accuracy. Governments need to step up funding for such research. Clinics need to fend off marketing pressures to prematurely offer the newest tests to patients. Communities need to be involved in the process. We all need to work harder to dispel the myth that genetics is destiny and that DNA is the blueprint for our humanity. Labs need to be fully transparent with their data even if it means sacrificing some basic business principles of corporate secrecy.

The explosive growth of lab positions for  patient-focused genetic counselors – roughly 20% of genetic counselors are employed by labs, according to the 2016 Professional Status Survey of the National Society of Genetic Counselors – can help implement a wiser policy on test development and introduction into medical care. Of course, as I have mentioned previously (ad nauseam, according to some) genetic counselors will need better training to navigate the murky, complex waters of conflict of interest.

Labs, clinicians, and patients need to recognize that market forces don’t have to be the only engine that drives policies on test development and introduction into clinical practice. We are talking peoples’ lives here, not trying to outmaneuver Pepsico’s Cheetos in the market niche for snacks that you can’t seem to stop eating, even when your hands and mouth turn that peculiarly unnatural orange color (did you know that there are 21 different types of Cheetos on the market? Cheetos Sweetos, however, has been discontinued.). Innovation can be wonderful, exciting, and improve medical care. Let’s just do it wisely.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

  • – actually it would be more accurate to say that the P in NIPT stands for placenta. It is not really cell free fetal DNA; it’s cell free placental DNA.

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The NSGC Financial Conflict of Interest Policy for The Development of Practice Guidelines: Good But Not Good Enough

Practice Guidelines are the collective clinical and ethical face that a healthcare profession presents to other care providers and to the public. The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) has authored a dozen guidelines on topics such as cystic fibrosis, pedigree nomenclature, and cancer risk assessment. I have been involved with developing some of these guidelines, and have found them to be thoughtful, insightful, and clinically helpful.

Where NSGC’s Practice Guidelines fall short, however, is in the underlying conflict of interest policy. The most recent conflict of interest policy I could find, dated August of 2011, indicates that  NSGC members who wish to be part of a  practice guideline committee  must sign a conflict of interest disclosure and, if a potential conflict of interest is identified, outlines how the conflict will be managed or resolved.  The conflict of interest guidelines further state that members with conflicts of interest should comprise a minority of the committee.  NSGC’s Conflict of Interest Advisory Group is responsible for ensuring that conflict of interest guidelines are properly carried out.

These are  important checks and balances, but in my view, they do not go far enough in assuring that clinical practice guidelines are free of undue influences or of the appearance of financial conflicts of interest. In matters of clinical policy, even the appearance of a conflict of interest can be critical to the ethical integrity of the guidelines and how they are perceived.

Steps For Improvement

So how can the NSGC financial conflict of interest policy be improved?  The first step is modify the policy to be fully in line with the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. The IOM’s recommendations would not be that difficult to implement, and subscribing to them would assure the public that NSGC strives hard to follow high national ethical standards. And, as I have noted previously about other NSGC conflict of interest policies, the policy should be prominently displayed on the publicly available portion of the NSGC website.

Second, NSGC must restrict the role of genetic counselors who work for or have a financial stake in (such as owning individual stock in a laboratory, being paid consulting fees, or receiving speaking honoraria) private laboratories when the practice guidelines relate to a service or test provided by that laboratory.

Think about it for a moment. If NSGC were to issue guidelines that recommend, say, a panel of genetic tests for autism on all newborns, would it not look questionable if the chair of the practice guideline committee and one or two of the committee members were employed by or had stock in a lab that ran a large number of autism panels? Judges recuse themselves from legal cases where there is even a remote possibility of conflict of interest; genetic counselors should have the same good sense to do so as well.

In my view, genetic counselors with a potential conflict of interest should not chair the committee, should not have a voting role on the acceptance of the guidelines, and they should not be listed as an author of published guidelines. Of course, lab-based genetic counselors have unique expertise and insight that could be valuable in developing practice guidelines, and it is reasonable to include such counselors as expert advisors to the committee.

I have one more controversial recommendation: NSGC should make its sources of corporate income publicly available. If NSGC supports a policy that could directly benefit private corporations, the public has a right to know about the financial relationships between NSGC and those corporations.

Keeping Our Moral Compass Pointed To True North

One might counter that NSGC is a small organization and excluding lab-based counselors from certain practice guidelines committees would be impractical. But I do not buy that argument. Lab-based counselors could still have an advisory role, and there are plenty of non lab-based counselors with expertise in all areas of genetic counseling. After all, those labs serve genetic counselors who use the tests to provide clinical care and thus presumably are also experts on the topic. And in those rare instances where there might truly be an inadequate number of clinically based  counselors with adequate expertise, NSGC should consider partnering with other genetics organizations to develop the guidelines.

I can already hear hooting and hollering, and calls from my good colleagues in the Industry SIG and NSGC leadership to have me boiled with my own pudding. Please do not get me wrong.  I am not criticizing lab-based counselors or NSGC leadership, nor am I suggesting that any genetic counselor is less than ethical. Indeed, I think lab-based counselors play a critical role for their fellow genetic counselors, for other clinicians, and for patients.  NSGC leadership typically works very hard to be an ethically sound organization, and NSGC is not alone in having a conflict of interest policy that could be enhanced.  This is an opportunity for NSGC to be a leader and set a model for all professional medical organizations.

Surveying the landscape of genetic counseling practice and guideline development, I am not aware of major problems that have resulted from financial conflicts of interest (of course, that could be the result of my own blind spots). But we are in the midst of a rapid expansion of genomic medicine, and we must not appear to be ethically compromised as we branch out into new professional services. The blind spots that we all possess, as well as the public perception of our motivations, make it critical for us take great pains to stay as ethically transparent as possible. Reputations take a long time to be earned, are stunningly easy to lose, and painfully difficult to re-establish. To borrow a line from the late Ray Bradbury, I am not writing about conflict of interest to predict its future – I am writing to prevent it.

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A Lover’s Lament: What If We Stopped Seeing Each Other?

Your head says forget it
But your heart’s still smokin’

-Joni Mitchell, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”

I love my profession. My heart belongs to my wife, but that’s a different sort of love.* I love my job because it affords me the privilege of being admitted into the deep recesses of patients’ emotional landscapes as they make complicated decisions and experience life-altering events. And I love genetic counseling because it let’s me believe that my skills and education are making a dent in this hard, hard world. I hope that I am helping reduce the emotional and physical suffering from genetic disease and that I make patients’ lives better in small or big ways.

Or perhaps I am  unrealistically romantic. It could be that for many patients genetic counseling doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Maybe I get more out of this relationship than they do.

Intimate relationships are, by their nature, plagued by doubt. But unexplored doubt only festers. So let me ask  a very difficult question: Would it make a heck of a lot of difference to the world if the profession of genetic counseling abruptly vanished? Who would notice?

We like to think that we are critical to Mission Healthcare. And no doubt we can all supply a fistful of anecdotes to support our case. This patient was given inaccurate information by her physician and almost had an unnecessary mastectomy before she saw me. Or  how about that physician who told the patient she had Huntington disease when in fact she had a normal number of repeats? That poor woman was beside herself. A patient last week said I was the only one who could help her come to grips with her child’s diagnosis, and she finally felt like she and her husband could get on with the business of being a family again. And then there was that evil dragon of an insurance company I slew the other day.

To be sure, these anecdotes are important to me; they keep my heart smokin’. But my head asks “How do we know that somebody else couldn’t do our job as well, if not better, or that our jobs are even necessary?” Where are the studies that compare genetic counselors to other healthcare providers, or  to smart phone apps for that matter? There are a few studies, but they are limited by small sample sizes or questionable outcome measures like information recall and anxiety. Which genetic counseling patient isn’t rightly anxious and wouldn’t it be more useful to help them cope with their anxiety rather than trying to make it poof-disappear?

So if genetic counselors weren’t here, maybe some people would never quite grasp  the subtleties of x-linked inheritance, the mechanics of adjacent 1 segregation, or the bayesian likelihood that they will have a child with spinal muscular atrophy. Who knows if patients even care about these matters? We all know that knowledge has very little to do with decision-making or adaptation and patients will still be just as anxious.  And if prenatal diagnosis ceased to exist, the net result would be an increase in the number of births of children with Down syndrome . One might argue this is not exactly a public health emergency or a critical failure of the healthcare system.

How can I doubt something I have been doing for three decades? Well, the doubt is mostly in my head, not in my heart. So I challenge you all to restore my faith in this relationship. Prove our value to patients and the healthcare system. Go out and do the studies. Measure all kinds of outcomes – psychosocial adaptation, public health measures like reducing the incidence of serious cancers, quality of decision making (how come nobody tries to measure whether patients make good decisions or bad decisions?), empowerment, perceive personal control, whatever. Do them all.  Let’s finally listen seriously to Shoshana Shiloh, Marion McAllister, Barb Biesecker and the other researchers who have been prodding us for years to examine genetic counseling outcomes. But then be prepared to take a long, hard look at ourselves, what we do, if we should even be doing it, question our assumptions and ethos, and think about how we should change the very nature of genetic counseling. Let’s be sure the relationship is as rewarding for our patients as it is for us. Make the fire in my heart spark some passion in my head.

* – My love for my wife is better evoked by this verse from a Tom Waits song:

In this land there’s a town/In that town there’s a house/ In that house there’s a woman/And in that woman there’s a heart that I love.

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