Tag Archives: research

Just What Are We Trying To Do Here? The Goals of Genetic Counseling

In a previous post, I discussed my disappointment with the state of genetic counseling research. Barb Biesecker rightly pointed out that part of the problem lies in a lack of consensus and clarity about the goals of genetic counseling.


So let’s consider some goals of genetic counseling. I make a distinction between Ultimate Goals (i.e., what we ultimately hope genetic counseling will achieve) and Short Term and Intermediate Goals (i.e., key steps towards achieving Ultimate Goals). In my view, the Ultimate Goals of Genetic Counseling are:

1) To reduce the medical, emotional, social, and psychological suffering that results from the genetic contribution to disease.

2) To ensure the cost-effective and equitable delivery of competent genetic counseling services to all people in a manner that respects their dignity, individuality, and values.

Genetic counselors may utilize many different techniques and ethical frameworks – which will vary with the needs and unique situation of each patient as well as the skills and training of the health care provider- to achieve these ends.

These goals offer a framework for evaluating process and outcome studies of genetic counseling. In a very basic example, a method for increasing awareness of preconception folic acid supplementation might produce a better informed patient (a short term goal) which might help achieve the intermediate goal of better adherence to dietary supplementation which would then lead to the ultimate goal of a reduced incidence of anencephaly. An intervention that simply increases education but does not result in greater adherence or a better health outcome is only a very limited success. Another example of how these goals might be used to assess genetic counseling effectiveness could be a particular patient-centered emotionally sensitive genetic counseling technique that resulted in better psychological adaptation to a child with a genetic condition, which in turn resulted in less emotional and psychological familial turmoil and perhaps better health for the child because the well-adapted family is more likely to utilize health care resources.

Although I am reluctant to bring up eugenics because it is an emotionally-charged word that generates argument rather than discussion, as genetic counselors we cannot ignore this elephant in our offices. But if we do not raise it in the context of goals, our critics will. Indeed, one could argue that eugenics would also embrace these same goals. The difference, in my view, lies in means, emphasis, and intent. Eugenics, broadly speaking, is looking to improve the “health” of the gene pool and to reduce the number of individuals with genetic diseases, usually through social or institutional influences on reproduction. Genetic counseling, on the other hand, should strive to reduce the effects of the disease, not the number of people with a particular allele or condition.

But let us not get mired down in endless discussion of the E word. Instead, ponder, explore, question, and critique my proposed goals. Tell me what you think.

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Filed under Robert Resta

Guest Post: Gene Patents- Why should genetic counselors care?

By Ellen T. Matloff

Ellen T. Matloff, M.S. received a Bachelor of Science degree cum laude from Union College, and a Master’s in Genetic Counseling from Northwestern University. Ms. Matloff currently serves as the Director of Cancer Genetic Counseling at Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut and previously worked at SUNY Health Sciences Center in Syracuse, NY. She is board certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling and is a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, the American Society of Human Genetics and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Should we, as genetic counselors, care about gene patents?

We have plenty of other things to worry about: patient care, publication pressures, administrative responsibilities, growing caseloads, shrinking health care budgets (I could go on, but why raise our collective blood pressure?) — so why, oh why, would we add gene patents to this list?

Because gene patents have a major impact on many things that affect our practice. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Cost of genetic testing, which influences: Patient access and insurability
  • Market competition, or lack thereof, which affects: Cost (see above), our ability as practitioners (or as a Society) to drive change within commercial genetic laboratories regarding issues such as price setting, marketing, advertising, turnaround time, reporting mechanisms, etc.
  • Clinical research, clinical research, clinical research. It is pretty hard to enroll patients in a study with an extra $3000 price tag per subject. Even a small study of 100 patients would cost more than $300,000 in genetic testing costs alone if patients were to receive their genetic testing results. And as those of us who have written grants know all too well, 100 subjects is a small ‘n’ and $300k is a huge chunk of most available grants.

In short, a strictly enforced patent creates a monopoly. Our patients need a test, we have to order it from one company, and they hold all of the cards. Lump it or leave it.

In the case of BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing, the cost of testing was $1600 in private laboratories in 1997. Twelve years later with the advent of more efficient and less expensive technology, the cost of the testing has not dropped, but soared: $3120 for full sequencing + an additional $650 for BART analysis = >$3770 per patient. Cha ching!

Perhaps in response to rising costs and direct-to-consumer advertising, many insurance companies have tightened their belts and their inclusion criteria for testing. HealthNet tried to drop coverage for genetic testing altogether two years ago, before an angry mob of rioters (also called genetic counselors) bled the story to the press. Medicare will now only pay for testing in a person who already has cancer. Kind of obliterates the whole preventive healthcare angle, doesn’t it?

For all of the above reasons, genetic counselors should care about gene patenting. This is important, its effects are far-reaching, and this is precedent-setting. Educate yourself and educate others.


Here is a great clip about Myriad’s BRCA patent from the documentary film In the Family.


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The Problem With Genetic Counseling Research

Researchers are finally starting to pluck the ripe fruit of  genetic counseling. The last decade has witnessed  a flood of articles about the emotional, psychological, and educational aspects of genetic counseling such that I can no longer keep my head above water. Given my long standing passion for research, I should be happy about this state of affairs.  So why do I often find myself let down after reading publications about genetic counseling?

To begin with, the conclusion of most articles can be summarized this way: “Many participants were unable to accurately recall information, some were anxious, and there were varying degrees of depression. There was little evidence of harm caused by genetic counseling and some small evidence of benefit. Most of the participants liked the genetic counselor.” This is basic, intuitive insight obvious to most genetic counseling students after their first couple of clinical rotations in graduate school. The research usually offer little in the way of new clinical insight that can be incorporated into counseling practice beyond the broadest generalities.

Of course recall is poor and anxiety is up; patients are dealing with complex medical information about emotionally sensitive topics like mortality, morbidity, and their reproductive lives. Yet despite these measures of our inadequacy,  in my experience, most patients -with a minority of notable exceptions that each of us can cite from our experiences -seem to make good decisions that are medically sound and consistent with their beliefs and values.

These studies also suggest that genetic counseling is a failure because of poor recall and heightened anxiety, implying that if patients only were clear-headed and  well informed, they would make logical anxiety-free decisions. But the reality is that – except for the small minority of patients with a disproportionate number of Vulcan genes – people are not logic-driven automatons, and anxiety and sadness are natural consequences of discussing death, serious illness, and risks to loved ones. Welcome to life. It also implies that the priesthood of genetic professionals possess The Great Clinical Truth and The Right Numbers when in fact the information and statistics we selectively present to patients are somewhat arbitrary and reflect our own training, biases, and institutional traditions.

Clinicians want their patients to think and act like , well, clinicians. In fact it should be the other way around – researchers and clinicians should be trying to think and act like patients. How is it that patients manage to make good decisions? When is a patient decision good, and when is it bad? Is it because of our best efforts, or in spite of them? How are we helping and hurting them?  What is happening in genetic counseling sessions that is or is not influencing health behaviors?  Can we show that genetic counseling has improved the health of our patients? Are – gasp! – other health professionals or even educational software better at it than we are? Can we use genetic counseling research to provide broader insight into the human psyche and behavior?

What types of genetic counseling research would you want to read or conduct, if you had the time, resources, and money? Which authors should we be paying more attention to? What are the great unexplored areas of genetic counseling? Take a moment to speak your mind and spark our imaginations.


Filed under Robert Resta