Genetic testing was supposed to change the world. With the ability to “read” genes and uncover what makes us unique individuals at the cellular level, genetic testing would give us the blueprint to knowing how to adjust our diet and lifestyle for better health, understanding our bodies’ propensity towards certain diseases, and learning how our systems uniquely respond to the world around us. With genetic science becoming more accurate and more widely understood, genetics has the ability to change the course of someone’s life for the better.
Unfortunately, the promises haven’t come to fruition. The majority of genetic testing today is to find out someone’s ancestry — focusing backwards when an individual can use a test to focus on the present and the future. Even most health-related genetic testing mostly focuses on risk averse measures, instead of proactive preventative ones.
Today, genetics companies range from solid, science-based testing companies, to copy-cat companies using competitor databases, to companies using testing to sell their supplements, with each one using a different kind of science to map different kinds of genes. Further destroying the customer value proposition of genetic testing are concerns around privacy: How can I know my test is accurate? Will my test results be sold? These are valid questions, considering big pharma is behind some of these testing companies.
But the genetic testing industry still has time to turn things around to change the world with the value it can bring. To truly get the most out of the incredible power of our ability to test our genes, we need to rethink how we’re approaching genetic testing, and reframe what’s possible. How do we do that? Through promoting lifestyle genomics.
What is Lifestyle Genomics?
How can the industry make good on its promises for better health and wellness? Through lifestyle genomics, which is the relationship between an individual’s genes and the lifestyle choices they make every day. Who we are, what we do, and how we respond to the environment around us is based on our genetic makeup. Similarly, every action we take — from the food we eat, to our exercise, to how we manage stress, to the pollutants in our environment — affects how our genes behave. If, through testing, we’re able to understand how our genes work, then we’re able to adjust our choices and lifestyle in response.
Having knowledge and awareness around how our bodies function is empowering. But too often genetic testing focuses on the results, and gives cookie-cutter advice on how best to proceed forward. But unique genetic testing results deserve personalized recommendations, including guidance on what choices and decisions to make going forward, with support from health and wellness professionals.
In a recent report on the State of Genetic Testing in the US 2020, respondents who had taken a genetic test reported finding a lack of next steps after they received their results, what was missing was personalized guidance, support, insights, and an answer to “What do I do now?” Additionally, the report found that 58% of those who had taken a genetic test made no changes in their daily lives after getting the results. It’s that missed opportunity that lifestyle genomics initiatives can fill. And healthcare practitioners can help fill that gap. In fact, those who took a test under the care of a practitioner were more likely to make lifestyle changes than those who took it alone.
Why Practitioners Should Care
Practitioners are always focused on doing what’s best for their patients, but they can only do this if they understand their patients in the most expansive ways they can. Pieces of the puzzle are missing without being able to access and understand a patient’s genetic makeup. Because of this, treatment plans become trial and error as practitioners try to figure out the best approach for their patients.
But what if practitioners could simply know the best approach? Genetic testing could provide that clarity. Because genes have such an impact on how our bodies respond to environment, exercise, and disease, a lack of genetic testing — or a lack of knowledge around the results — means that practitioners actually aren’t understanding their patient to the fullest.
This is another opportunity to further deliver on the promise of genetic testing: Practitioner education and awareness. If there is a consumer gap to fill after they receive their test, then practitioners are perfectly situated to take those curious about next steps forward.
If practitioners are the key to becoming guides for patients who want to know how their genetic testing results can apply to them, there are a few steps to take.
First, we need education for both consumers and practitioners. Consumers need to be aware of how much more insight and life-saving help they can get from understanding how their genes work. For practitioners, it’s about understanding that how genetics work is just as important a piece of the puzzle as biomarkers, blood tests, and tracking diet and exercise. This may not happen until the narrative around genetic tests — that they’re just for finding out your ancestry or predisposition to diseases — changes.
It’s not fair to leave practitioners on their own to research and educate themselves. Experts in the genomics field need to create a community for practitioners, where they can learn more, ask questions, understand the value of genetic testing, and learn how to connect those insights with advising their patients on making changes to their lifestyle.
To look at it in a broader sense, consumers who have taken a genetic test need guides in general, whether they are practitioners, health coaches, counsellors, or personal trainers. If genetic testing is a blueprint on how to live a new, different, and better life, then individuals need someone to help them build the structure of that new life. Our report undercovered that of those who took a test under the guidance of a practitioner, 61% reported making some kind of lifestyle change going forward — nearly double those who took a test alone. Clearly the additional help and guidance produces results.
Diet, exercise, and lifestyle change can in fact impact genetic expression and behavior, but there’s still not enough broader awareness around the topic, for both consumers and practitioners. This may be what’s causing the “What do I do now?” response after receiving a genetic test — there isn’t enough awareness around the ways forward.
Education and Awareness Around Genetic Testing
As mentioned above, there’s clear benefit in education and awareness around genetic testing and next steps for practitioners, in that they’re better able to serve patients, make recommendations, and track lifestyle changes. But these benefits are not yet fully articulated, which may be why practitioners aren’t devoting the time and resources to learning more.
Finally, we need to cultivate the conversation between consumers and practitioners in order to create a push and pull which can elevate the demand for more education around genetic testing.
The good news is that genetic testing can still change the world. It’s going to take a shift in narrative, and a more extensive awareness of how understanding one’s genes can create a clear pathway towards better health. It’s also going to involve educating practitioners around the benefits of incorporating genomics into their work in order to better realize the full story of their patients. Lifestyle genomics may be what fills in the gap that’s existed around confusing or useless tests, and will be what finally realizes all the promises of genetic testing that have yet to be fulfilled.