By Lori Solomon, Editor, Diagnostic Testing & Emerging Technologies
Nearly half of workers diagnosed with a chronic illness receive their diagnosis through participation in a corporate wellness program, according to survey results recently released by health engagement company HealthMine. Interestingly, wellness program participants report wanting even more personal health data. The majority of respondents want to know their risk for chronic conditions, and even cancer, through genetic testing, HealthMine says.
Experts say that incorporating genetic testing into corporate wellness programs is "relatively uncharted territory." Many employers and insurers cover genetic tests for medical reasons, such as for those with a family history of certain cancers. But with increasing awareness of genetic testing, the public is expressing interest in more comprehensive assessments of health risk, even in the absence of a clear medical reason. Despite this interest, concerns over data privacy and doubts over the ability of genetic testing to effectively identify elevated risk of common conditions and curb employer health care costs are likely to slow adoption of genetic testing into corporate-sponsored wellness programs.
However, Aetna (Hartford, Conn.) appears to be the first large health insurer to offer genetic testing to its corporate clients’ wellness programs. Earlier this year Aetna and Newtopia (Toronto, Canada), a personalized health company, announced a commercial agreement to offer personalized disease prevention plans to those at risk for metabolic syndrome. The announcement follows a pilot of the program among 500 Aetna employees. In the pilot, a combination of genetic markers and health benefit claims were used to identify individuals at a risk for metabolic syndrome and verify that personalized disease prevention programs achieved engagement through lifestyle coaching and behavior management. The targeted saliva-based genetic test reportedly examines variants tied to metabolism of carbohydrates or fats and a genetic marker tied to compulsive eating. According to a case study, Newtopia says that 85 percent of pilot program participants lost weight, with 70 percent achieving clinically significant weight loss. The companies will commercially offer the service to Aetna’s largest employer customers and are reportedly looking to sign up six companies in the first year.
“We heard from a lot of the participants that it reframed their sense of their problem with weight management and allowed them to view it in less blame-laden terms,” said Gregory Steinberg, M.D., Aetna’s New York-based head of clinical innovation, in a statement.
Despite reported interest and success in modifying lifestyle factors, barriers exist to widespread incorporation of genetic testing into corporate wellness programs. HealthMine acknowledges that most consumers (67 percent) are concerned about the security of their personal health information in their wellness program. Newtopia says it runs the wellness program and doesn’t share an individual’s results with either the employer or the insurer. Additionally, many experts question whether or not such genetic testing is clinically meaningful in identifying risk for common conditions and in turn, translating risk-modifying interventions into health care savings for employers.
“[Employers] are waiting for evidence that this genetic testing will change risks,” said Jeff Levin-Scherz, M.D., a senior consultant with the benefits consulting firm Towers Watson, in a statement.