Today, we’re chatting with Sheryl Walker, MS CGC to take a deeper look into the services they offer and how understanding your genetic makeup can help kickstart your health journey.
Hi Sheryl Walker, MS CGC. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today and share more about the amazing work you’re doing at Genome Medical. We’re excited to be partnering with you. In a nutshell, can you tell us more about Genome Medical and the services you offer to LunaDNA members?
No problem, thank you for the opportunity! Genome Medical provides genetic counseling services by phone or video to individuals in all 50 states and has professionals with expertise in multiple areas of clinical care, including cancer, cardiology, reproductive, pediatric, pharmacy, and proactive genetic testing. LunaDNA members can schedule a one-on-one genetic counseling session in any of these areas to review their personal medical history and family medical history, discuss any appropriate diagnostic genetic testing, and get answers to specific questions they may have regarding previous test results. Diagnostic genetic testing can be informative for individuals with a diagnosis to guide treatment, aid in recommendations for future care, provide risk information for relatives, and more.
That’s wonderful. This is clearly beneficial for someone with health questions. It sounds like people can learn more about themselves and, importantly, take adequate preventative measures on their health journey. What if someone isn’t experiencing any health challenges? How might they benefit from speaking with a genetic counselor?
That is an excellent question. As researchers continue to learn about how our genes impact our health and potential for disease, and as more consumers learn about the information their genes can provide, more individuals are seeking genetic information–including those who are healthy and unaffected by disease. While a person may not currently have a disease diagnosis, testing of their genes could reveal health risks and the potential for a future diagnosis. Many genetic diseases present earlier in life or family members will show signs and symptoms of a genetic disease that is being passed through a family, but this is not always the case. Many factors influence the manifestation of disease, including environment, lifestyle, age, and genetic factors. Even individuals who currently have a clean bill of health could have a risk for hereditary disease based on their family medical history or be found to have a genetic disease predisposition that may not show signs in standard health screenings. One such example is predisposition to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a hereditary disease that causes thickening of the heart muscle; this would not be identified unless a person was undergoing specific cardiovascular imaging. For several hereditary disorders, such as genetic predisposition to cancer risk, there are recommended screenings and management guidelines to help prevent a diagnosis and reduce risk. All individuals can benefit from reviewing their personal and family medical history with a genetic counselor. Even individuals who have no ‘red flags’ may be interested in and potentially benefit from clinical genetic testing and proactive health screening.
Last year, we commissioned the Harris Poll to conduct a survey across 2,000 Americans to better understand the relationship Americans have with consumer DNA test kits, including how informed they feel about how their DNA data will be used and general concerns with participation. We learned that roughly approximately one quarter of Americans are concerned about finding out they carry a genetic disease (24%) and that their insurance company could access their results (23%). What would you say to the population of people who have these concerns?
As a genetic counselor, I feel strongly that genetic testing can be extremely beneficial, but also that genetic testing is a personal choice. I have found that patients will choose to learn about genetic testing at different times in their lives (e.g. not interested in their 30’s but become interested in their 40’s) and seek different amounts of genetic information. The discussion we have in their session helps determine how they want to proceed and what is going to be most beneficial for them. I think it is good to question one’s motivations for accessing genetic information and, even more importantly, to think about how one might use this information and how they would feel if they learned they carry a genetic predisposition to disease. Genetic testing does not change what already exists in our DNA, but the knowledge can change our awareness of predisposition and health risk.
I often hear concerns about privacy and access to genetic information. Regardless of how genetic testing is being facilitated — be it through a research study, a direct-to-consumer DNA kit, or a diagnostic laboratory — it is important to know how your information and data are handled, accessed, stored, and what legal protections exist in relation to genetic information. The Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA), enacted in 2008, protects individuals from discrimination in health insurance and employment based on genetic test results. Some states have additional protections beyond GINA. However, the federal protections do not extend to private life insurance, disability insurance, or long-term care insurance. More information on this federal law can be found at ginahelp.org. Genetic counselors discuss this information during appointments, as it can impact decision-making about genetic testing.
The role of the genetic counselor is to help navigate these issues and decisions and explain risks and testing in a way that’s easy to understand. Genome Medical is proud to be able to provide this type of precision medicine care in a convenient and affordable way to their patients.
Knowledge is truly power. We often get asked, ‘Why would I use Genome Medical’s services when I can order a test on my own through companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA?’ I’m sure you get these questions, too. How do you best answer this?
It’s important to understand the difference between consumer and diagnostic testing. While there are many different direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic tests available that a person can order themselves, diagnostic genetic testing can only be ordered by healthcare professionals like the genetic counselors and geneticists at Genome Medical. The testing performed by consumer companies typically uses SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) analysis that looks at predetermined sites in your genes. Most diagnostic genetic testing, however, is performed using next-generation sequencing which looks comprehensive across all sites in the genes. You can think of it this way: if one of your genes was a book, SNP analysis is like reading a single page, whereas next-generation sequencing reads the entire book cover to cover. Further, consumer tests typically do not incorporate personal medical history or family medical history in their offerings. Genetic counselors study this important information alongside diagnostic genetic test results to provide personalized insights and recommendations on health risk. Lastly, most consumer companies report extremely limited, if any, information on inherited disease risk, and, if they did report a finding (whether cancer risk-related or otherwise), the finding absolutely needs to be confirmed through diagnostic genetic testing before making any changes to medical care. If an individual has a strong family history of cancer or cardiovascular disease, they should seek genetic counseling and diagnostic genetic testing.
So, in short, there’s a significant difference. As we can imagine, your clinical team of 40+ medical geneticists, genetic counselors, primary care doctors, pharmacists, and other specialists — who can provide medical services in all 50 states — puts you at an advantage to reach a wide network of people. How soon can a member speak with one of your Genetic Counselors once they become interested?
Appointments are very convenient. We can see individuals by phone or video. Interested LunaDNA members can typically speak with a genetic counselor within 24-48 hours (limited weekend appointments are available).
This is a great opportunity. Is there anything else that may be important for LunaDNA members to know that we may not have already covered?
As mentioned earlier, I think everyone can benefit from a thorough discussion of their personal and medical family history. However, it is important to recognize that, like other areas of medicine, genetics is subdivided into different specialties. The genetic counselors at Genome Medical have different areas of expertise, so if an individual is interested in learning more about cancer risk and discussing inherited cardiovascular diseases, this may be best addressed in two separate appointments. In order for our genetic counselors to best tailor your session to fit your specific needs, it always helps to have as much information as possible before your scheduled appointment; this can include filling out our intake survey, indicating specific questions you want to address, and uploading previous genetic test results to our portal for review. The health information in your LunaDNA account can be easily forwarded ahead of your appointment. Our medical practice is driven by our desire to provide the best genetic healthcare experience possible. We look forward to hearing from your members!
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Sheryl Walker, MS CGC, and for supporting us to encourage our members to take control of their health and their data.
If you are interested in scheduling a consultation with a Genome Medical genetic counselor, you can do so here.
Interested in learning more about your personal and genomic health?
About Genome Medical
Genome Medical is a national telegenomics technology, services and strategy company bringing genomic medicine to everyday care. Through our nationwide network of genetic specialists and efficient Genome Care Delivery™ technology platform, we provide expert virtual genetic care for individuals and their families to improve health and well-being. We also help health care providers and their patients navigate the rapidly expanding field of genetics and utilize test results to understand the risk for disease, accelerate disease diagnosis, make informed treatment decisions and lower the cost of care. We are shepherding in a new era of genomic medicine by creating easy, efficient access to top genetic experts. Genome Medical is headquartered in South San Francisco. To learn more, visit www.genomemedical.com and follow @GenomeMed.
About the Partnership
Since our partnership in April 2020, LunaDNA members across the United States can access a network of clinical genomic specialists — including medical geneticists, genetic counselors, pharmacists, and primary care doctors — to better understand their health and DNA information.