Companies are looking at innovative offerings as part of their wellness programs. Genetic testing is one that is gaining some traction. The Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) reported that last year, 18% of organizations offered genetic testing, a 6% increase from 2016.
With the increase in home DNA testing, people are curious about their background and family history. Along with that is the desire for care to prevent or manage illnesses that an individual may be predisposed to develop based on their genetic makeup.
How Genetic Testing Works
Genetic tests use a sample of hair, blood, skin, or amniotic fluid to test for changes in chromosomes, genes, or proteins. More than 1,000 genetic tests are currently being developed, and the results can determine if a person has a certain condition, has a high risk of developing a condition, or can pass a condition to their children. For example, genetic tests can determine if a woman has an increased risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer because of a gene mutation, if someone has an increased risk for cystic fibrosis or Parkinson’s disease, or if someone is a carrier for sickle cell anemia.
The theory is that with this information in hand, people can take better control of their health. Actress Angelina Jolie, for instance, found out through genetic testing that she had a gene, BRCA1, which significantly increases the risk of developing breast cancer. She also had a family history of cancer. With this knowledge, she decided to have a preventative double mastectomy, reducing her chances of developing breast cancer from 87% to 5%.
While not everyone might not make the same choice as Jolie, by knowing they have certain risks, they can monitor their health more closely (i.e., more frequent mammograms, healthy diet, exercise, etc.).
Genetic Testing At Work
Although genetic testing is done on a case by case basis by physicians, the idea becomes more complex when employers offer it as a general benefit offered to all employees. The thought is that by early identification of health risks, employees will address them sooner, which typically leads to lower health costs. While the ROI on genetic testing for employers has been tough to quantify, one study found Aetna saved $650,000 in a yearlong wellness program that screened employees for metabolic syndrome and provided them with a personalized approach to reduce their risk factors.
While participants in the Aetna study found success, it is important to note that along with the testing, Aetna provided personal coaches and a high level of engagement with program participants—not just the administering of a test.
Unlike Aetna, most companies do not have a full-fledged support system for genetic testing. Considering the risk of false positives and false negatives and the lack of context of test results, employees may receive their findings and not know what to make of them. In addition to genetics, additional factors may increase or decrease a person’s risk of developing a disease, such as lifestyle, other personal health conditions, family history, and environment. Without providing a perspective that considers all of the factors, employees may unduly worry or develop a false sense of security.
Particularly for employees who are asymptomatic, offering across the board genetic testing can create confusion and stress. Those with symptoms or family history of genetic diseases might best be served by consulting their physicians, who can help them put any genetic test results in perspective of their overall health.