Is genetic testing ready for prime time use in employee benefits and insurance products?
We think so, albeit with some caveats. Other expert opinions are mixed regarding this question, but one thing is for sure, this field of medicine is growing in leaps and bounds. New genetic discoveries are published weekly leading to new treatments, better disease prevention, less drug side effects, and overall improved public health.
And actually, genomics is already being used in clinical practice in certain settings as mandated by various professional association clinical guidelines. Some innovative insurance companies have started to offer genetic testing of various forms to their insurance clients and as part of employee health programs in the US and around the world.
The cost of various genetic tests ranging from USD $200 to $5,000 is one of the commonly quoted reasons why doctors and patients avoid needed genetic tests. One study of lung cancer patients showed that 41% of patients did not follow the recommended clinical guidelines for genetic testing.
They mention uncertainty regarding cost reimbursement as one of the barriers to ordering these tests. (1) This is where genomic based products can play an important role at the time of cancer diagnosis as an employee benefit.
Purpose of this series of articles
In these next 10 monthly articles, we will explore the topic of genomics as we discuss genetic basics, use of genetics in cancer management, pharmacogenomics, screening with 'liquid biopsies' and disease risk stratification. Because I am a medical doctor working in the insurance industry and not a geneticist, I hope to present a different point of view on this important topic from a practical insurance perspective.
We will show you the benefits of incorporating genetic tests of various types into employee benefits and in other insurance products. The emphasis of our work is more in the post-policy issue space rather than entering the political, ethical and regulatory whirlwind surrounding genetic testing at the time of underwriting. Our goal through these articles is to give the insurance professional 5 or 6 key talking points to make the sale to insurance companies and employers on the benefits of genetic testing services.
Equally important, these articles will cover some of the challenges associated with going down this road and discuss ways to overcome these obstacles. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am writing on behalf of a new genetic testing service intermediary, Wamberg Genomic Advisors (WGA) who stand at the crossroads of the insurance and genetic testing industries.
They use their collective knowledge and expertise to guide insurance clients in their successful adaptation of this new genetics technology to improve their employee's health, to increase sales, maximize return on investment and improve public health and longevity. A 2016 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey reports that 6% of the US population has had some form of genetic testing done and 81% found the information useful. (2)
Presently, clinical doctors mostly order genetic tests in patients who have a strong family history of disease or when the patient has symptoms and the genetic test is performed to diagnose a condition or to help decide upon the most appropriate form of treatment. But with the price of genetic testing falling precipitously, we have seen a rapid increase in public access to genetic testing either through their doctor, employee health programs or via direct to consumer genetic testing kits.
Insurance companies will need to adapt to this possible asymmetry of information that could lead to anti-selection. In next month's September article, we will get into the real meat of this topic. We will discuss the basics of genetics, the different types of genetic tests and their accuracy.
We will cover the benefits of genetic tests and get into some practical example uses of genomics in corporate wellness programs, voluntary benefits and in other insurance products. I invite you to answer this anonymous one question online survey and see what others think about genetic testing. Also, post your comments and opinions in the comments section below as we start this open discussion.
All content in this article was created for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, genetic counsellor or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or testing.
Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this article. Reliance on any information provided in this article is solely at your own risk.
About the Author
Dr. Phil Smalley is an Internal Medicine specialist with 27 years of experience in insurance medicine. He recently retired from his position as Senior Vice President and Global Chief Medical Officer for RGA International Corporation. Dr. Smalley received his medical degree from the University of Toronto, Canada. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and Past President of the Canadian Life Insurance Medical Officers Association.
Dr. Smalley was also Managing Director of the Longer Life Foundation, the not-for-profit research partnership between RGA and Washington University School of Medicine. Dr. Smalley currently lives in Toronto consulting for the insurance industry and is Chief Medical Director for Wamberg Genomic Advisors.
- Gutierrez ME et al, Genomic Profiling of Advanced Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer in Community Settings: Gaps and Opportunities. Clin Lung Cancer. 2017 Apr 13. pii: S1525-7304(17)30109-2
- Robert J. Blendon, Sc.D., Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Gideon Gil, Managing Editor, Enterprise and Partnerships of Stat and John M. Benson, Mary T. Gorski, and Justin M. Sayde at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Stat January 2016. Accessed August 4, 2017 https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/94/2016/01/STAT-Harvard-Poll-Jan-2016-Genetic-Technology.pdf