Tag Archives: genetic counselors

Why “H.R.3235 The Access To Genetic Counselors Services Act” Makes ACMG Feel Threatened By Genetic Counselors (Again)

In the  United States, genetic counseling services are typically delivered by masters level genetic counselors. Yet Medicare, the largest health insurer in the US, does not recognize genetic counselors as reimbursable providers. No health professional is better qualified to provide genetic counseling than a genetic counselor. Absurdly, then, Medicare’s policy assures that the service is covered ONLY if it is provided by mostly unqualified health professionals. It boggles the mind.

But this could change if Congress passes H.R.3235 – the Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act, along with whatever version winds up in the Senate. This bipartisan bill would allow appropriately certified genetic counselors to be covered by Medicare and to order genetic tests as local licensure permits. The bill has broad support in the medical community. Even the AMA has stated they will not oppose the bill.

So why in God’s name has the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), the primary professional organization of MD clinical geneticists, made the bone-headed decision to come out against this bill, even when many genetic counselors are members of ACMG? ACMG claims that they would support the bill only if genetic counselors are not allowed to order genetic tests. This is an untenable position, especially in light of the abundance of data demonstrating that genetic counselors not only are savvy about ordering tests but having them involved in the process results in significant cost-savings and increases the accuracy of test interpretation. I might add that there are virtually no equivalent data demonstrating that clinical geneticists bring equal value and expertise to the ordering and interpretation of genetic tests. They probably do but, hey, show me the numbers. Furthermore, the anti-genetic counselor position is contrary to ACMG’s Vision and Mission to “to facilitate the delivery of quality clinical and laboratory medical services to patients and their families…” It’s hard to facilitate testing if  the country’s largest group of genetics providers are excluded from ordering genetic tests (there are roughly 2-3 times as many certified genetic counselors as there are certified clinical geneticists).

I suspect that ACMG’s position stems from both historical and economic factors. The relationship between masters level genetic counselors and clinical geneticists has a complicated 50 year history. When the first genetic counseling graduates entered the job market in the 1970s they were likely to be employed in a Medical Genetics department where they were supervised by a clinical geneticist. Not uncommonly, genetic counselors were viewed by clinical geneticists as lower echelon providers who more or less served as “doctors’ helpers.” Indeed, back then many clinical geneticists argued that genetic counselors shouldn’t even be allowed to call themselves genetic counselors because in their view only physicians should serve in that role. They wanted to wall off genetic counselors from meaningful clinical practice and call them Genetic Associates.  There was also more than a hint of underlying sexism. Most clinical geneticists at the time were older males and 95% of genetic counselors were bright young females – those “girls” just weren’t good enough to do “real” medical genetics. The two professions, though, were in a symbiotic relationship; it would have been nearly impossible to run a large genetics clinic without the labor of genetic counselors or clinical geneticists. One profession could not live and thrive without the other.

With the wider availability of prenatal testing in the 1980s, many genetic counselors found employment in prenatal diagnosis clinics, which were usually run by obstetricians rather than clinical geneticists. Genetic counselors gained a greater sense of independence and professional confidence serving as the genetics experts in these new settings. This expansion of genetic counseling employment beyond traditional genetics clinics was further stimulated by advances in genetic testing for more common conditions like cancer and cardiac disorders in the 1990s. Genetic counselors were not gonna’ work on Maggie’s Farm no more whereas clinical geneticists pretty much kept themselves down on the farm.

As I have described previously, this came to a head in the early 1990s when the then American Board of Medical Genetics petitioned the American Board of Medical Specialties to create an American College of Medical Genetics. This move would serve to increase the prestige and potentially improve reimbursement of clinical geneticists’ services. The American Board of Medical Specialties agreed to do so – but only if masters level genetic counselors were not part of the deal. This resulted in very bitter debates between genetic counselors and clinical geneticists. I have vivid memories of some disagreeable and uncomfortable, uh, discussions at national and local meetings. One clinical geneticist told me at the time that the separation would mark the end of the genetic counseling profession (boy, was he wrong). Ultimately, with the thoughtful but firm guiding hand of the leaders of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, genetic counselors agreed to secede from ABMG. It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the genetic counseling profession. Genetic counselors and clinical geneticists thereafter still maintained a professional relationship; after all, many of them worked together. But professionally speaking, genetic counselors pretty much left clinical geneticists in the dust and clinical geneticists are still struggling to catch up. Most genetic counseling and ordering of genetic testing gets accomplished without any input from a clinical geneticist and it gets done quite well, thank you very much.

Incidentally, I would like to remind everyone that  in the 1980s, when the American Board of Medical Genetics administered certification exams to both genetic counselors and clinical geneticists, all candidates need to pass two exams – a general exam that everyone took demonstrating overall knowledge of medical genetics and then a separate subspecialty exam each for genetic counselors and clinical geneticists. In most years that the exam was administered, genetic counselors had higher average scores and pass rates on the general exam than clinical geneticists did. So don’t talk to be me about questioning the competence of genetic counselors.

Economically, clinical geneticists are struggling to survive. Salaries are low and recruitment for fellowships is a struggle. Clinics are understaffed and wait times for an appointment in a genetics clinic can be as long as a year. Worse than running in place, they are losing ground. Thus, AMCG’s position on H.R.3235 gives the appearance of a desperate attempt to protect its shrinking economic and professional turf.

This is not 1980 and there aren’t any Genetic Associates anymore. Genetic counselors are damned good at providing genetic counseling and ordering and interpreting genetic testing. Genetic counselors know their limits; they aren’t looking to perform medical procedures, admit patients to hospitals, prescribe medications and other treatments, or undertake a comprehensive dysmorphology exam. In fact, in many states, local licensure laws already allow genetic counselors to order genetic tests if the patient has a private insurer or Medicaid (but not if the patient is covered by Medicare). I am not aware of any data suggesting that this has negatively affected the practice of clinical geneticists. It’s just made it easier for patients to access genetic testing, simplified navigation of the tortuous pathways patients must go through to obtain insurance coverage for testing, and helped assure that test results will be properly interpreted and integrated into the patient’s health care strategy.

But neither ACMG nor genetic counselors own genetic testing. Most clinicians, regardless of specialty, can order a genetic test. Heck, consumers can order tests themselves online, if they are so inclined. ACMG needs to better serve its membership and patients by adapting to a changing world and developing a different clinical and economic service delivery model. Opposition to H.R.3235 does not help patients, genetic counselors, or, if they cling to a dated view of medical practice, clinical geneticists themselves. ACMG must support H.R.3235 and recognize that genetic counselors play a critical role in the delivery of medical genetics services and testing.

 


You can contact your local congressional representative to express personal or organizational support fo H.R.3235.


Thanks again to Emily Singh for help with graphics.

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What Can I Say?

I like doing crossword puzzles with their mix of trivia and clever word play. I will never win any contests, but I am a competent puzzler (I prefer the term puzzler to it’s more high falutin’ cousins, cruciverbalist and engimatologist). Sometimes a devilish clue will stump me because it leads my mind to a very narrow interpretation of it. I have found a helpful strategy to solving the clue is to give it some benign neglect. If I let my mind stray to other things and then come back to 23-Down, the cobwebs will have fallen and in a slap-the-forehead moment the answer pops into my head. One way of distracting myself is to let my eyes wander across the newspaper page. As it happens, crossword puzzles are often on or near the same page as Advice Columnists and I find myself reading those letters from people seeking help with their woeful life situations. I am usually impressed by the counseling and psychological insights offered by the columnists and often find myself wondering what my response would be to the letter-writers (and I find myself singing the lyrics to John Prine’s wry song “Dear Abby“).

Last Saturday when I was stuck on trying to remember the city where Aga Khan’s mausoleum is located, I turned to reading “Ask Amy,” Amy Dickinson’s advice column. Although Amy did not supply me with the answer to the puzzle clue (Aswan, along the Nile in Egypt, for those of you who are also puzzlers), my attention was grabbed by a letter to Amy from – a genetic counselor. The counselor, who has chosen not to have children, asked Amy how best to respond to clients’ questions about whether the counselor has children and what decision she would make for her own child. The counselor also related a story about a recent couple who believed that the quality of care provided by their physician was compromised by that provider being childless.

My first thought was “Such questions play on our professional and personal insecurities. This genetic counselor might have been better served by peer or one-on-one supervision.” Supervision is an important part of professional growth. Although there are a few genetic counseling supervision groups, they are not particularly common, perhaps because there is no strong genetic counselor cultural tradition for them or professional requirements to participate in one. To some extent, the NSGC sponsored listservs – or Forums, as they are now called – sometimes serve that role but it’s not exactly the same thing.

My second reaction was I guess that’s a question a chatbot wouldn’t have to deal with. As Siri might say, “I am not sure that I understand that question.”

My third thought was “What would I say to that counselor if she posed the question to me?” If you are in a clinical position, no doubt you have encountered similar questions about your personal life. Before I was married, I remember the not uncommon occurrence of counseling a single parent pregnant woman who came to the session with her mother and afterwards the mother asking me on the sly “You’re such a nice a young man. Are you married?”

It is impossible for us to mirror all of our clients’ characteristics, experiences, and life situations. We can’t be all things to all people.  In fact, one might argue that being too similar to our clients can result in counter-transference issues that can negatively affect the quality of our counseling. A counselor can be too empathic; sometimes the ways that we are different from our clients can give us a less biased outlook on a family’s issues.

I was not particularly happy with Amy’s advice to the genetic counselor, which was to say to the couple “We’re not here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about you. Let’s focus on your case, OK?” I think it unhelpfully dismisses the couples’ concerns. It may be what the counselor is thinking but in my view that’s not how it should be verbalized or managed. I can think of a few alternative responses, depending upon the specifics of the situation:

  • “I appreciate your concerns and understand why you think a parental perspective might be helpful. But in my role with you, I am a counseling professional, not a parent. I have years of experience and professional training in working with couples in your position. My clients, whether or not they have children, often tell me how much they appreciate my expertise and insight. So I think that I can help you in meaningful ways. After meeting with me, you might want to talk to your friends and family members who have children to get their perspectives too.”
  • “You mentioned that you want your care providers to be parents – why do you think you feel this way? As we go through this session, let me know when you think a parental perspective would be important to the issue at hand and let’s see if we can figure out why my not being a parent might matter.”
  • “Some patients have raised this with me before. For many of them, it turned out that my perspective as a non-parent actually gave them a better understanding of their situation and helped them make what they felt to be a better decision. Let’s see if we can work together on this.”
  • “I don’t have children. But I listen very closely to my patients, and I have learned a lot from them about the issues and feelings that parents face. I think you can benefit from the many insights that my patients have shared with me.”

There are no doubt other ways to respond to these patient requests for self-disclosure and you may think my suggestions are inadequate. More than one research article has been written about how much counselors should share with patients about their professional lives and how they manage such questions. In the spirit of on-line peer supervision, I would like to hear from the Good Readers of The DNA Exchange about how they would have responded to the Ask Amy letter and how they handle questions from patients that probe counselors’ personal lives.

Patients are ongoing puzzles that we must continually work on solving, whether we are beginners or graying veterans. Some of the clues they give us have obvious answers, while others are more layered and complicated. The solution for one patient’s situation may not work for the next patient puzzle. All of us need to remain open to the help and perspectives of our peers and colleagues. We cannot grow if we engage in benign neglect.

 

 

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Guest Post: We Can Do Better – The Experience of a Minority Genetic Counselor, by Tala Berro

Tala Berro is a genetic counselor in the Boston area. She is a queer, Arab woman who is also a racial justice and LGBTQIA+ activist. You can follow Tala on twitter here: @tala_berro

Bob Resta recently wrote a blog on his experience of being a man, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman, in our woman-dominated field. He called upon us good readers to share experiences “where you are not quite like everyone else.” Being a queer person of color in genetic counseling, I immediately took up his call. In part due to my various identities, there have been countless instances during my genetic counseling training and career when I have felt “not quite like everyone else.”

Let’s start with intersectionality, a term coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to highlight the ways in which black women were excluded from the feminist movement. Crenshaw notes that “not only are women of color in fact overlooked, but their exclusion is reinforced when white women speak for and as women.” In this blog post, I want to take a deeper dive into how my own intersecting identities as a queer, Arab woman affect my experience as a genetic counselor.

The genetic counseling profession within the Unites States is overwhelmingly white. As reported by the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), 92% of the 2018 Professional Status Survey respondents identified as white, which is easily visualized when one walks through the exhibit hall at the NSGC Annual Education Conference. Although there are many reasons why we often see a higher percentage of white individuals in jobs that require a graduate degree, genetic counseling is an especially white field. In comparison, 54% of software engineers are white, 80% of public school teachers are white , and 68.2% of physicians/surgeons are white.

The foundation of empathy is what drew me to the genetic counseling profession. I knew that I would come in as an outsider, but I hoped that caring, open-minded genetic counselors would make for caring, open-minded classmates, supervisors, and coworkers. However, we have a long way to go. Genetic counseling training programs incorporate lessons on the importance of culturally appropriate counseling of patients, but this same openness and acceptance is not always extended to fellow genetic counselors.

I started to notice my “otherness” in the field of genetic counseling from the beginning of graduate school. Being an Arab genetic counseling student always had its pros and cons. My favorite instances as a student were when an Arabic speaking patient would come into a genetic counseling session and I could utilize my knowledge of Arabic. This shared language and its ability to add comfort to my patient always felt really special. More often than not, though, sessions with Arab patients would end in a debriefing session with a supervisor who would ignorantly state microaggressions, judging family sizes, and gender dynamics. After one of these sessions, my supervisor and I were discussing the patient and mentioned the specific Arab country they were from. A medical professional in the workroom overheard and noted that, to her, this specific country is associated with danger and violence. There was no response to this comment. I was left shocked, dismayed, and anxious, without an outlet to seek support from other genetic counselors of color or Arab background.

What is currently seared into my mind as a genetic counselor of Arab descent whose community often attends mosque, is the massacre in New Zealand. I came to work devastated and shaken. While not all individuals of Arab descent are Muslim, I (and many others) consider those who are Muslim to be members of my community. Perhaps a genetic counselor saw a Muslim patient that Friday and provided comforting words. I wondered, though, how many genetic counselors reached out to their peers or students who may have been impacted by this. From my own experience of not receiving messages of support, I would guess not many.

In addition to racial barriers, being a queer genetic counselor comes with its own barriers to navigate. Based on my training experience, genetic counselors are growing in their awareness of pronouns and gender identity, often using the word “partner” when counseling. However, on an interpersonal level, it takes more than just awareness for true inclusion. I recall a conversation from back when I first started as a genetic counseling student in which I proudly identified myself as queer. This statement was met with discomfort and confusion. I know that genetic counselors are educated on the importance of mindfulness and inclusivity of the LGBTQIA+ community and are taught to be verbally-inclusive with patients who identify this way during a session. However, there seems to be a discrepancy in how these lessons of acceptance are actively applied by genetic counselors in and out of clinic. The ability to sustain a relationship with a patient over a 60-minute genetic counseling session does not translate to intentionally cultivating an authentic relationship with someone of a different identity from you.

One universally challenging aspect of genetic counseling training is providing and receiving feedback. To be evaluated on your words, demeanor, and body language while you are learning to interact with patients and cope with emotional situations is difficult. However, feeling like you are also being evaluated for your values, beliefs, and cultural upbringing is much harder. At times, I have been critiqued for my character and values, as opposed to my specific counseling skills. I have been encouraged to “play devil’s advocate” to my own beliefs. For example, during my training, I was given feedback that highlighted my potential to advocate for underserved patient populations, and also challenged me to find ways of connecting with patients who are different from me. This feedback came before I even had the opportunity to interact with a single patient. I felt critiqued not on behaviors I exhibited but on behaviors that were assumed of me. It also felt like this feedback was unnecessary reiteration that I am different, as the minority, and that I will be expected to live and fit in a world of the majority. Through these experiences I wondered: were my professors and supervisors feeling defensive because I was different from them and teaching me felt different than teaching others in our field? Who could I turn to within the field to talk about my thoughts and concerns?

Whenever I hear the term devil’s advocate, I think back on a blog post by Juliana Britto Schwartz. She writes, “dearest devil’s advocates: speak for yourself, not for the ‘devil’. Teach yourself. Consider that people have been advocating for your cause for centuries, so take a seat. It’s our time to be heard.” It is often forgotten that those with underrepresented identities have lived their entire lives being forced to understand the majority. These same privileged experiences to which I was encouraged to have an open mind are mirrored by what I read about in fiction, watch on television, and learn about in the history books. As a queer genetic counselor of color, I understand how to navigate these spaces because I have been forced to my whole life and will continue to do so in my professional life. Instead of ensuring that I understand and empathize with the majority experience, why don’t we make sure that the majority understands and empathizes with the minority experience?

As genetic counselors, we consistently discuss and learn about empathy for our patients. My hope is that we can take these lessons and apply them to our colleagues and peers outside of a counseling session. To my fellow genetic counselors, I propose the following version of the golden rule: treat your peers as you treat your patients.

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On Being A Woman in A Woman’s World

The genetic counseling profession is overwhelmingly female. Like about 90-95%, pretty much worldwide. Always has been, and, not seeing any imminent factors that are likely to change that percentage, I am guessing that it will continue to be a “female” profession for the foreseeable future. I am not exactly sure why this is so, though its historical roots provide a partial explanation. The founding parents of the profession and the original students were female, and the first training program was established at Sarah Lawrence College in 1969, an educational institution that until 1968 matriculated only females. Heck, I first learned about the profession when I read an article in Working Woman magazine nearly 40 years ago. Being female, if you will, is in the profession’s DNA.

Given the predominance of females in genetic counseling, I am often asked “What is it like being a male in a ‘female’ profession?” I don’t have a very articulate or insightful answer, and I usually respond with a mix of glibness (“Well, there are shorter lines at the restrooms during annual conferences, now that women no longer take over the men’s restrooms like they used to when conference centers had fewer women’s restrooms.”) and thoughtful gravitas (“As a student and novice, it was difficult finding a male role model or mentor.”). Mostly, though, I just go to work each day and try to do my job as well as I can, and I usually don’t spend much time thinking about the impact of my gender on my interactions with patients or colleagues unless a particular set of circumstances warrants it.

The recent celebration of International Women’s Day got me to thinking about the obverse question – “What is it like being a woman in a woman’s world? What are the pros and cons?” No doubt there is significant variability among work settings, but based on years of observation of the profession and informal discussions with colleagues, I think that some of the potential benefits for women working with predominantly female colleagues and supervisors might be:

  • An abundance of smart, compassionate, assertive, and wise females to serve as role models.
  • More female clinical bosses, program directors, and – especially in the laboratory sector – mid- and upper level managers, implicitly communicating the message that you can rise up the power pyramid (though unfortunately there are still plenty of roadblocks in the upper echelons).
  • Greater support for pregnancy leave, dealing with family issues, and part-time employment.
  • With respect to genetic counseling colleagues and immediate supervisors, sexual harassment is probably much less likely to occur than when working in a male-dominant profession.
  • A historical record of tackling clinical, ethical, professional, and employment challenges that has resulted in the incredible expansion of job opportunities and scope of practice, tacitly suggesting that young genetic counselors can – and are expected – to continue this tradition.

There are also downsides to working in a pre-dominantly female environment. Until relatively recently, salaries could be shockingly low because women everywhere have always gotten the raw end of that deal. Another significant problem is that when men have power over women, it not uncommonly manifests in inappropriate sexual language and crude behaviors. Even if all of your genetic counseling colleagues are female, there are still plenty of male health professionals and administrators that you interact with. This environment can foster both subtle and blatant sexual harassment. The blinkers fell from my eyes about this issue when I was looking for a job right after graduation school. At one interview, I met with several male non-genetic providers who I would be interacting with. One of them looked at me and announced to the group “Well, this counselor’s breasts are a lot smaller than the counselor he would be replacing.” I was stunned by the statement, though I am ashamed to admit that I was too young and insecure to call him out on it. But it made me acutely aware of the pressures and tensions that women face when trying to deal with men on a professional level. As the Tom Waits song goes, there just ain’t enough raised right men.

Although women have made great strides in genetic counseling in gaining acceptance by patients and health professionals, there is still a glaring gap in the respect afforded to women based on their gender. In my clinical practice, patients and even providers very commonly refer to me as Dr. Resta, no matter how hard I try to disabuse them of that notion. This even after the patient has just signed an insurance coverage agreement form that specifically states that I am not a physician and I just handed them my business card that has no mention of an MD degree. Yet my female genetic counselor colleagues – even those a few decades closer to my age – are only occasionally referred to as “Doctor.” There may be several reasons for this but undoubtedly my gender triggers a near autonomic reflex to refer to me as Doctor.

I recognize that my observations are limited by the implicit biases inherent in being an upper-middle class white male. I am usually unblissfully unaware of the ways that my world view is filtered by my gender, heterosexuality, and socioeconomic status. So please tolerate and/or point out any of the blind spots in my speculation. But mostly I want to hear from the Good Readers of The DNA Exchange about their personal experiences – What is it like working in a predominantly female profession?

And while I am thinking about it, it would be equally interesting to hear about the professional views of genetic counselors who are ethnic minorities, are other than strictly heterosexual, have disabilities, or are otherwise under-represented. I encourage you to consider writing a piece for The DNA Exchange about the good, bad, or whatever experiences you have had in working in a profession where you are not quite like everyone else.

 

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A Diagnosis Is Not The End Of The Odyssey

by Robert Resta, Jennifer A. Sullivan, Allyn McConkie-Rosell

Allyn McConkie-Rosell, Ph.D., CGC, is a Professor in the Division of Medical Genetics at Duke University Medical Center. Jennifer A. Sullivan, MS, CGC is a
Senior Genetic Counselor in the Division of Medical Genetics at Duke University Medical Center. Robert Resta, MS, CGC, is a genetic counselor at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle and a frequent contributor to The DNA Exchange.

The Diagnostic Odyssey – that meandering, lengthy, and frustrating quest for a diagnosis. Genetic counselors, medical geneticists, and patients with rare disorders and their families are achingly familiar with it. The allusion to Homer’s Odyssey is apt. Odysseus’s decade of wanderings are replete with perils, disappointment, love, wonder, whimsical gods, adventure, and frustration. Surely some specialist somewhere in the world can tell me what condition my child has been born with, and I will brave the wine dark seas for as long as I must to find that expert! Genetic testing technologies like whole exome/genome sequencing have shortened the quest for many patients, though perhaps not as often as one would have hoped.

The label Diagnostic Odyssey suggests that the diagnosis is the end of the odyssey. And therein lies the problem. Many families and patients discover that a diagnosis does not necessarily allow them to settle down happily with Penelope in the kingdom of Ithaca. A successful diagnostic workup may be the end of the odyssey for clinicians, but for patients and families the diagnostic quest is just one phase in the life cycle of genetic disorders.

A diagnosis may answer some questions such as cause and recurrence risk, but it can also create a whole new set of issues. For patients diagnosed with ultra-rare conditions, families may be faced with frustration from a lack of available knowledge about treatment or prognosis. Even if medical interventions are possible, finding and accessing those resources, and getting health insurers to pay for them, can be a major undertaking. Or a condition’s rarity may make it impossible to form an effective patient/family community to provide advocacy and support. The diagnostic odyssey may result in some patients feeling like diagnostic oddities.

If a newly diagnosed syndrome turns out to be untreatable or life-shortening, parents may lose all hope and descend into existential despair. A non-diagnosis at least holds the glimmer of a chance for a treatment or cure out there somewhere. Patients who have a diagnosis changed from a previous incorrect diagnosis may lose the sense of identity and support supplied by the disease community that they had been involved with for years.

The label Diagnostic Odyssey focuses on one medical aspect of a condition. Clinicians can take much-deserved professional satisfaction in having finally solved a long-standing mystery. But for many families, living with a genetic condition is not a temporally demarcated event and, above all, not only a medical experience. Patients will also still need to implement strategies and solutions to the social, educational, lifestyle, and psychological ramifications of the disorder. It is an ongoing journey, one that continues to unfold as patients age and develop new symptoms, family structures evolve over time, medical treatment advances, and sociocultural changes re-shape attitudes toward inclusivity and the availability of resources. A genetic condition, named or not, will continually present new challenges throughout the entire life of a patient.

We do not mean to imply that a diagnosis is unimportant. We recognize the emotional and potential medical value of finally “putting a name on it.” But the name just points the ship in a new direction to unexplored regions with different threats, problems, and rewards.

Perhaps the Diagnostic Odyssey label needs to be retired or renamed to more accurately reflect its role in the process of living with, and adapting to, genetic conditions. So we turn to the Good Readers of The DNA Exchange to offer their suggestions – what do you think?


Genetic Counselor Talent Show Friday, November 16th

Are you attending the 2018 Annual Education Conference of the National Society of Genetic Counselors in Atlanta next week? Worried that days of  PowerPoint presentations and polite applause will make you forget what fun is? Want to have a blast one evening and see your genetic counseling colleagues in a very different light? Then attend the Genetic Support Foundation’s GC’s Got Talent  2018 genetic counselor talent show on Friday evening November 16th. Cancel all your other evening plans for Friday, November 16th. Trust me – there will be nothing even close for entertainment. With Yours Truly, Bob Resta, as Master of Ceremonies, how could anything beat it? Can you dance, sing, or play an instrument? Are you a Slam Poet? Then show off your talents to your colleagues! Or, if like me, you have Zero Talent, then join me as part of the Story Telling Crew. I have a goofy and weird story to tell. But we all also have poignant, tragic, comic – or all of the above – tales to tell. If I can do it, then you can do it. If you wish to impress your colleagues with your talent, send an email to info@geneticsupport.org to sign up. Show up et regarder les bon temps rouler.

For more information, visit: https://geneticsupportfoundation.org/gc2018

 

 

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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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