If you think genetic testing options like 23AndMe and Ancestry.com are just a flash-in-the-pan, think again. Genetic data is creating a new paradigm in healthcare: Forbes reports that precision medicine could eventually remove the need for guesswork and make medical treatment more efficient and cost-effective.

The roots of this approach can be traced to the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, which provided researchers with tools to understand the genetic factors in human disease. This information has led to a targeted approach to cancer treatment, but that’s only the beginning.

There’s also a trend toward personalized healthcare, a virtual “crystal ball” that helps doctors assess an individuals’ risk for future illnesses by combining genetic information with more traditional means including age, lifestyle, health history, medical records, compliance and other factors. Currently 10,000 conditions can be identified using genetic tests.

What do precision medicine and personalized healthcare mean in practical terms?

  • Lower costs, better outcomes. Doctors, researchers and pharmaceutical companies are finding new ways to leverage genetic information to help patients avoid chronic diseases and deliver precise, effective treatments to the right patients at the right time.
  • New “miracle” drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are revisiting their traditional business model and finding new revenue streams through precision medicine. According to Forbes, leading pharma/biopharma companies have almost doubled their investment in personalized medicine since 2012 and are planning more increases over the next five years. The focus goes beyond oncology to other therapeutic areas including infectious diseases, central nervous system disease conditions (like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Genomics could go mainstream. As the cost of genome sequencing goes down, healthcare systems could begin putting that knowledge to work. Modern Healthcare reports that patients are getting their DNA sequenced and doctors are using that information to check medications for genetic suitability.
  • Big data is being leveraged. The Veteran Affairs Department is enrolled 500,000 veterans as part of its goal to created the largest genomic research database in the world. And Geisinger Health System has recruited 130,000 patients as part of a plan to create the MyCode Community Health Initiative biobank.
  • Entrepreneurs see opportunity. Gene-sequencing giant Illumina Corp. was highlighted by The Motley Fool, thanks to the company’s dominant position in the market. The company’s newest machines, with their $1 million price tag, began shipping this quarter.
  • The market is growing. MarketWatch reports that personalization of healthcare, dominated by oncology, cardiovascular and infectious disease treatment and diagnostics, could be worth $149 billion by 2020.
  • Consumerism will drive accountability. As patients become more engaged in healthcare information and the decision-making process, they are becoming more conscious about the cost of care. Personalized healthcare dovetails perfectly with this emphasis on accountability between patients and caregivers.

The overall impact on employer benefit plans is still out for debate. Currently, genetic testing is often a covered benefit when recommended by a doctor but pre-authorization may be required. In general, insurers also require genetic counseling as part of the process.

The emphasis on genetics could also impact employer wellness plans. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was passed in 2008 to prohibit discrimination by employers or insurers based on genetic information. The limits of this act are being put to the test, however, with HR1313. This controversial House bill would allow employers to require genetic testing as part of their wellness program. Opponents say this may undermine employees’ privacy, while supporters see this as an opportunity strengthen wellness plans.

As genetic testing becomes more ubiquitous, expect this topic to garner increased attention.

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