Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Genetic Testing and Privacy: Are Our Health Care Policies Adequate?

As a genetics professional who provides genetic testing, I am aware of the fact that many individuals contemplating genetic testing cite insurance and employment concerns as major reasons to forego testing. For that reason, I heaved a sigh of relief on May 21, 2008 when the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA) was signed in to law. First introduced in 1995, at a time when only about 300 genetic tests were currently in use and these for mainly rare diseases, it was called both forward-thinking and premature. Now hailed as the first civil rights law of the new century, GINA will prohibit group and individual health insurers from using a person’s genetic information in determining eligibility or premiums and prohibit employers from using a person’s genetic information in making employment decisions such as hiring, firing, job assignment, or other terms of employment. Guidelines for segregating genetic information from other medical records are expected to be forthcoming.

As I thought more about it, however, I realized that the world has changed rapidly in the 14 years since this bill was first introduced, and that these changes may well undermine the protections that GINA was meant to provide. I see four main threats: 1) more genetic information everywhere, 2) data expansion, 3) genome wide association studies, and 4) electronic medical records.

Under the more information heading, the terms “Genetic information” and “genetic condition” are becoming more difficult to define. We are finding that almost all illness has some genetic component such that making clear distinctions between genetic and non-genetic health information is becoming increasingly meaningless. Under the data expansion category, genetic research has shifted from diseases linked to a single gene (Huntington disease, cystic fibrosis) to more common and complex illnesses characterized by the interactions of multiple genes and environmental factors (asthma, diabetes). There are now over 1500 genetic tests in use and in the not-so-distant future, nearly all health records will include substantial genetic information. Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) look for single changes in the hundreds of thousands of base pairs (A,T,C,G) that make up the human genome associated with a particular illness or condition. These conditions may be as serious as breast cancer or as frivolous as what type of ear wax you are prone to develop. These tests are being aggressively marketed directly to consumers and can be ordered on line for less than $400. There is little oversight of the companies marketing these tests and as one who works in the field of genetics, it seems almost criminal to test for one mutation associated with cystic fibrosis out of the more than 1000 known CF mutations and call that information useful in the absence of extensive educational efforts. It may not be long before our patients come to our offices with their printouts from 23&Me and ask to add them to their medical record. The fourth threat may be the shift from paper-based medical records to electronic health records (EHR) with their goal of standardization, compatibility, and ease of transport. In a paper-based system, the greatest protection of individual privacy is chaos, the inability to aggregate a complete record from multiple providers over time. Comprehensive and longitudinal medical records will inevitably contain sensitive information and patients will no longer have the option of selective recall in the sense of “is that depressive episode I experienced in graduate school after being mugged really relevant information for the orthopedist performing my knee surgery twenty years later?” Electronic medical records will make it even more difficult to sequester genetic information.

One other developing trend may also play a role, the refinement of personalized medicine, the ability to target drug therapies customized to each person’s genetic makeup to both improve the effectiveness of current treatments and to reduce side effects. Pharmacogenetic testing is becoming standard practice in selecting drugs and dosages for certain cancers while toxicogenetics, the use of GWAS studies to predict how individuals may respond to certain toxins, is becoming more important in assessing both individual and public health risks. If genetic factors appear to play a role in individual and/or community resistance to flu viruses, who knows what might happen.

Technology moves rapidly while our legislature does not. A bill introduced to fix a problem in 1995 may not be as relevant or as useful in 2009. So while I am still happy that GINA was finally passed, the devil, as they say, is in the details, and it remains to be seen how much protection is actually provided for our patients and their families.

Kimberly A. Quaid, Ph.D.