Genetic testing moves into world of employee health

FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 file photo, pedestrian walks past a sign for health insurer Aetna Inc., at the company headquarters in Hartford, Conn. A new program from Aetna and Newtopia, a small Canadian company that creates personalized health-improvement programs, uses data from initial wellness program steps like physicals or blood tests to figure out which employees are vulnerable to metabolic syndrome. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Your employer may one day help determine if your genes are why your jeans have become too snug.

Big companies are considering blending genetic testing with coaching on nutrition and exercise to help workers lose weight and improve their health before serious conditions like diabetes or heart disease develop. It’s a step beyond the typical corporate wellness programs that many companies are using to make workers more aware of their risk factors and improve their health.

Genetic testing in corporate wellness programs also is relatively uncharted territory. Many employers and insurers cover these tests and counseling for medical reasons, like helping people determine if they are more prone to certain cancers. And earlier this year, President Obama asked the U.S. Congress to approve spending on medical research into using a patient’s genes to tailor care.

Mixing generic testing into a wellness program may create a tool attractive to employers desperate to cut health care costs, one of the biggest expenses in a company’s budget. But employee benefits experts have doubts that such a novel approach will gain momentum. It first has to conquer steep challenges like employee worry about sharing such sensitive information and employer skepticism about its effectiveness.

“They are waiting for evidence that this genetic testing will change risks,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, a senior consultant with the benefits consulting firm Towers Watson.

Sparking the push to add genetic testing into corporate wellness offerings is a new program from the health insurer Aetna and Newtopia, a small Canadian company that creates personalized health-improvement programs. Their offering uses data from initial wellness program steps like physicals or blood tests to figure out which employees are vulnerable to metabolic syndrome.

That’s a group of conditions like high blood sugar, poor cholesterol or a big waistline that, when they occur together, increase a patient’s risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Those people are invited to get testing that analyzes a narrow band of genes that can tell patients things like how their body processes carbohydrates or fats, or if they have a genetic marker tied to compulsive eating. Patients then work with a coach to combine that information with a plan to improve their health.

Aetna and Newtopia are selling their program to the insurer’s biggest employer customers, and they are seeking to sign up to six companies this year. Spokeswoman Michelle Grant said the cost for companies will be on par with other disease prevention programs that attempt to improve a person’s health using live, individual coaching and apps. She did not provide specifics.

Aetna appears to have this niche to itself for now. None of the other major health insurers in the United States offer genetic testing as part of a wellness program.

The new program was tested on employees at Aetna and The Jackson Laboratory, a Bar Harbor, Maine, company. Scott Craig, a maintenance worker at the laboratory, decided to give the test a shot last year because his weight had soared to 335 pounds (152 kilograms) and his blood pressure and blood sugar levels were up.

The 53-year-old mailed a saliva sample in for analysis. The result? He has no genetic traits that help explain his weight gain.

“In other words, I got nothing to blame,” he said. “Finding that out, oddly enough, seemed to motivate me.”

 

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