Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) genetic testing kits are becoming increasingly popular with the public. In this post, we discuss this medical technology from an employer’s standpoint. We’ll start with how the genetic testing industry began, talk about why it’s booming, and look at the benefits and risks.
The Evolution of DTC Genetic Testing Kits
What started as a fun and interesting way to trace your family tree and ethnic make-up via Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and others has rapidly evolved. Consumers now use these affordable at-home tests to screen for gene mutations that may increase someone’s chances of developing an array of diseases – from common cancers to high cholesterol which increases the risk of stroke and heart disease among other ailments.
In 2017 the FDA allowed 23andMe to screen and inform consumers about their risk for developing ten different diseases including late-onset Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Last year the FDA authorized the company to test customers for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations which are linked to a higher risk for ovarian and breast cancers.
The DTC Genetic Testing Market is Growing
According to a press release from Global Market Insights, the DTC genetic testing market will grow to $2.5 billion by 2024. Genetic health screening company Color Genomics alone raised $179 million from venture capitalists as reported by TechCrunch in 2017.
Color innovated ways to reduce genetic testing costs by using robotics and artificial intelligence, eliminating in-person pre-screening by physicians. The company’s test kit for common hereditary cancers is $199. Similar tests offered by traditional diagnostics firms can cost up to $4,000 or more. So, we can see why the demand for these tests is increasing.
Employers Offer Genetic Testing to Employees
According to the New York Times, DTC genetic testing is trending in the workplace. Companies such as Levi Strauss & Company, Visa, OpenTable, Slack, and Stripe have partnered with Color to provide genetic testing as an employee perk.
As a CEO, I can see the appeal of this. I love the idea of offering benefits to employees not only from a competitive recruitment or retention perspective but from the viewpoint that genetic testing could save lives. At the very least, it could reduce someone’s potential healthcare costs by determining certain risks much earlier in their life.
On the surface this all seems pretty earth-shattering – the technology, the price point, the ability to save lives and decrease healthcare costs. However, let’s take a look at some of the challenges with DTC genetic disease risk screening.
Downsides to DTC Genetic Testing
The popularity of genetic testing comes with potential drawbacks. Some critics go as far as to say that the widespread availability of this testing to consumers is downright irresponsible, believing the tests should only be ordered, analyzed, and interpreted by trained medical professionals.
Consumer messaging from testing companies is confusing. On the one hand, the firms responded to some criticism by casting their role as merely informational rather than clinical. In other words, “buyer beware” as the companies obviously want to reduce their liability.
On the other hand, Anne Wojcicki, the CEO of 23andMe, said that consumers don’t need experts to interpret their results and even compared her products to home pregnancy tests. She believes that the average consumer can understand the results and infer how they might or might not indicate future health risks.
I think that’s a dangerous assumption. Here’s a data point to illustrate this: Researchers from Ambry Genetics, a medical diagnostics company, and division of Konica Minolta, reanalyzed DTC genetic tests. They found that up to 40 percent of the tests were actually false positives.
Consumer Reaction to Genetic Test Results
In addition to the risk of false positives, there is worry about how people are going to react to their results. Some consumers could panic and seek medical intervention, such as further testing, without first visiting their physician to interpret the results. In many of these cases, health insurance will not cover the additional tests.
Additionally, most cancers, for example, are not caused by the hereditary mutations that these tests can detect. For people with average risk, a screening might not be helpful. In fact, it could even cause unnecessary stress.
Final Thoughts on Genetic Testing
From an employer perspective, I would love to give employees a benefit that could arguably lengthen or save their lives or at least save on future healthcare costs. I couldn’t ask for anything better to offer to my employees, but I don’t want a company full of terrified people who mistakenly believe that they’re on a definitive path toward a fatal disease.
Although it’s a phenomenal technology, we need to proceed with caution regarding direct-to-consumer genetic testing.
Watch our vlog, “The Rise & Risks Of DTC Genetic Testing“, Bill Gadless, President of emagine, shares his insights:
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While we don’t currently offer genetic testing to our employees, we have fantastic benefits. See our open positions, and please apply if one’s a fit for you.
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