A Practitioner’s Guide To Genetic Testing
Why Does Genetic Testing Matter Now?
Your patients aren’t just names on a chart.
They’re unique individuals with different backgrounds, families, interests, health goals, and future plans. They may be tall or short, old or young, looking to live a healthier lifestyle, lose some weight, or need help because they’re not feeling well. They come to you to guide them on the path to wellness.
You would never provide the same course of treatment for each of your patients — that’s a given. But even with the tools you have already, you may feel like there’s still more to discover about them, and you’ve probably been looking for ways to provide a deeper level of personalization to the care you give.
Genetic testing is that tool. It can provide not just a deeper understanding of how a patient’s body functions and responds to the world around it. It can give you the ability to create a better, more tailored health plan for your patients.
From knowing what to eat at each meal to knowing which environments are harmful to us, from maximizing our fitness levels to extending our lifespan, genetic testing can provide that missing piece that prevents practitioners from providing truly comprehensive care.
Yet the narrative around genetic testing has been muddled. Ancestry companies dominate the genetic testing space, offering insights into family history and not health — looking at the past, and not the future. Supplement companies use genetic testing as a way to sell their products, with sales and not personalized care in mind. And confusion around who is doing the testing and the safety of testing has led both patients and practitioners to question its efficacy and application.
But genetic testing is ready to take its place as a primary tool for dedicated health practitioners looking to provide better, more personal care for their patients. This guide will show you how.
~ Dr. Yael Joffe,co-founder & CSO at 3X4 Genetics
Introduction to Genetic Testing
The History of Genetic Testing
Genetic testing is finally ready to take its place as the ultimate tool for personalized care, and has come a long way in a short amount of time.Our understanding of genetics began in the 19th century, when Gregor Mendel derived a theory around the basic principles of genetics through his work around plant heredity in 1866 — though the term “genetics” wouldn’t be used until 1905 by English biologist William Bateson. In the early years of the 20th century, Mendel’s theory gained traction and credibility as more discoveries about disease aligned with his principles.Studies into DNA itself began in the 1950s, with the first X-ray of DNA being taken in 1952, and the double helix structure discovered in 1953. The first DNA sequencing took place in 1977, and in 1985, DNA testing and profiling was used for the first time in a court case. By the late 1980s, the first genetic map had been created, and in 1990 the Human Genome Project launched, which resulted in the mapping of the entire human genome by 2003.In the early 21st century, focus has been placed on identifying what specific genes do, how they transpose, and how they express themselves. In recent years, we’ve seen ge-netic testing move forward in the following areas:
Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have not only exposed millions of people to what genetic testing is, they’ve made it part of our dinner table conversation. According to MIT, as of 2019, 26.5 million people have taken a genetic test, and 23 million of those were administered by Ancestry.com or 23andMe. By providing easy ways for consumers to do genetic testing at home, they’ve also made testing a more acceptable and less daunting prospect.
More Players in the Marketplace
Two decades ago, there were only a handful of companies working in the genetic testing space, making it exclusive and expensive. Today, hundreds of companies have turned genetic testing into a direct-to-consumer (DTC) industry and can provide comprehensive testing at much lower costs, making testing available now to all. By 2025, Global Market Insights predicts that DTC genetic testing is expected to top $2.5 billion.
Genetic testing is no longer just being offered by genetics companies, but by companies that specialize in nutritional counseling, wellness brands that offer customized supplements and vitamins, companies testing for food sensitivities and microbiome health, and more. Consumers can order kits online from companies directly on their website, from Amazon, or even purchase them at a local grocery store or pharmacy.
Genetic testing has entered mainstream medicine as well, as the healthcare sector begins to appreciate the value understanding genetic variability can provide. Genetic testing can help determine appropriate drugs and drug doses for an individual — especially in regards to chemotherapy — and help identify adverse reactions before drugs are even prescribed. According to Heidi Iratcabal, ND, “Genetic testing for pharmaceutical compatibility is so important I feel everyone needs this on record before drugs are administered. This could reduce the 70,000 plus deaths a year from improper pharmaceutical prescriptions use.”
Entry into Academia
In addition to healthcare sector application, genetic testing is increasing in the academic world. There are now multiple medical journals dedicated to genetics, and most journals are now including articles on genetics and its impact on health. Health conferences include sessions on genetics — or are fully dedicated to the topic — and conferences expos now feature genetics companies. Genetics content is also being added to university curricula as well, although not enough there has been a noticeable increase.
Genetic testing has become part of everyday conversation, genetic tests are being rated by popular websites, and TV shows tracing family history have gotten people to want to discover more about themselves. But part of the conversation includes concerns over its accuracy and the ethics around testing — a conversation that has moved out of the medical community into the mainstream. It also includes fears over personal information being sold, or that insurance companies may using testing for discrimination.
Disappointment in the Promise
Increasingly, consumers are feeling let down by the promise genetic testing gave them — a greater understanding of how their body works, and what they should do — because they’re not receiving specialized, actionable results. They’re finding that their genetic test recommendations are no different than what they could find on Google.
The State of Genetic Testing Today
Today, genetic testing has the ability to uncover a person’s unique physiological construction. It creates a blueprint of how that person’s body is built and expresses itself: how solid the walls are, where the electrical circuits are located, and if the windows will let in direct sunlight (speaking metaphorically, of course).
But a blueprint stays a drawing unless someone knows how to interpret it and translate it into a well-built structure.
This is the key role that practitioners play in genetic testing: they interpret the unique results of their patients, and turn the blueprint into a map on which they can guide their patients towards better lifestyle choices, dietary habits, and increased wellness.
“Overall, my primary goal with genetics is to help patients know what practices they will likely need to continue to stay well, beyond those we implement to resolve current health challenges,” reports Dr. Adrienne Carmack, Medical Director at Integrative Health Matters.
Todd DiLeo, a D.C. and US Triathlon Coach, asks “What better way to really personalize a program than genetic testing? Knowing the exact genetic make-up of a patient provides practitioners with an incredible insight on what that specific patient needs, how their cells process nutrients, etc.”
Martina Harms, PA-C and Functional Medicine Health Consultant, states that her experience involves patients that “have had testing without any practitioner guidance, and feel overwhelmed and don’t understand the complexity of epigenetics,” and goes on to state that she believes that “genetic testing has incredible power and utility when properly interpreted and utilized.” At least, this is how it should work, where trained practitioners counsel their patients on their own unique insights.
But that’s not the reality of genetic testing today. In fact, the genetics marketplace has quite nearly lost its way — and it’s up to healthcare practitioners to set it right.
Companies that provide ancestry information dominate the space, making genetic testing easy, accessible, and affordable. Yet because of their mainstream presence, many consumers believe that the only good genetic testing can do is offer information about a person’s family history.While there are hundreds of companies populating this space, some are more legitimate than others, making it hard to really know who to trust.
There are companies that are simply copy-and-paste, which take other companies’ reports and repackage them under their own brand — which means no unique research, science, or recommendations.
Other companies link genetic testing to their own products, and simply use genetic testing insights to boost sales on supplements and other products that will be the “solution.”
But there are also companies who do “get it,” not only offering legitimate scientific insights but also providing support and education to practitioners on how to read and interpret test results. Still, each company varies on which genes they choose to include, how good their science is, and how well they educate the practitioners using their reports.
Unfortunately, this means that practitioners often don’t know where to start.
Ultimately, the goal is not just to get a set of results, but to translate them into an actionable and beneficial plan for patients, providing them with clarity on how and why to make better choices to improve their quality of life.
We do know that more patients are asking for genetic testing, and that practitioners using genetic testing are offering insights that are impacting their patients’ lives for the better.
The questions for practitioners today are:
- What are the benefits of genetic testing?
- How can I better understand the misconceptions around it so I can use it as a tool for my patients?
- How can I better understand my patients’ hesitancies around genetic testing?- How can I find a reliable testing provider with which to partner?
The Factors Holding Genetic Testing Back
Genetic testing should have already assumed its role as an invaluable tool that offers personalized health insights to inform daily habits and choices. But part of the reason it hasn’t yet is due to misconceptions on the part of both the patient and the practitioner. Here are the common questions you and your patients may have, and the reality behind the myths.
– GENETIC RESULTS ARE SET IN STONE
While an individual can’t change their DNA sequence code, it doesn’t mean they can’t affect their genetic expression for the better. Those who understand their unique gene variants can make choices to optimize their impact, or compensate for their effects. And yes, genetic expression or behavior can be changed by individual choice. Lara Zakaria, a Functional Pharmacist and Clinical Nutritionist, notes that “the reality is, as Dr. Bland reminds us, ‘Our genes are not our destiny!’ [Testing] is a powerful opportunity to use genetic information to inform lifestyle and nutrition interventions to help people thrive.”
– GENETIC TESTING IS ALL ABOUT ANCESTRY AND PREDICTING DISEASE
When we hear about genetic testing today, it’s either in regards to finding out more about family history, or it’s a story of someone who tested if they were going to get a certain disease, like testing for the BRCA1 variant. Unfortunately, patients then associate genetic testing with fear of getting a bad diagnosis. But the majority of genetic testing focuses on gene variants to see how they interact with each other, diet, and lifestyle choices. When this information is translated for the individual, it can not only be used to prevent disease and optimize quality of life, but it can also be used to help manage disease and restore health.
– GENETIC RESULTS ARE NOT PRIVATE, AND WILL BE SHARED
There’s a fear that a testing company will not only share individual genetic information with a third party, but that insurance companies or employers may use the information to deny coverage or employment. But GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act) and HIPPA laws protect against this by requiring that companies separate identifying markers from test results. While it may happen with less credible companies, the regulatory environment exists to protect patients. Additionally, the EEOC states that “Under Title II of GINA, it is illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information.”
– THE SCIENCE ISN’T THERE YET TO SUPPORT GENETIC TESTING
As with any science, our knowledge of it grows and expands through usage and application. No science is ever completely “ready” or “done,” and no one would wait until it was to use it. We’re understanding more about genetic variability and the impact lifestyle choices have on it every day, and patients can be reassured of this by learning more about the science and its application to their lives.
– THAT THEIR PATIENT’S GENES ARE SET IN STONE
Practitioners may also not understand that gene expression can be impacted or optimized by lifestyle choices around diet, fitness, and environment. Genetic testing results aren’t a fate assigned to your patients, but a starting point upon which to build that will help compensate for or heal. Christopher LeMay, D.O., notes that “the key part of the discussion is that your genetics don’t dictate your diseases. Being at risk means that we need to piece together a customized plan that aims to lower those risks.”
– THAT PRACTITIONERS SHOULD ONLY FOCUS ON ONE OR TWO GENES
Practitioners often focus on a single gene variant, or a few specific variants like MTHFR or COMT, to provide insights, and then base diet, supplement, or lifestyle recommendations only on these few. But gene variants need to be understood within the context of their interaction with other variants working in the same space. That’s how practitioners can best create actionable recommendations. “We need to also assess the downstream biochemical effects of the gene in question because there may be other genes in play that we don’t even understand yet,” explains Cambria DeMarco, ACNP-BC. “Expression equals genes plus environment; and most genes do not express in isolation.”
– THAT GENETIC INSIGHTS SHOULD BE USED IN ISOLATION
Similar to the point above, where a practitioner wouldn’t look at one or two gene variants, but many variants to see how they work together, practitioners also shouldn’t take genetics out of context of everything else they know about their patient. Genetic testing should work hand-in-hand with other testing or evaluation tools, and be incorporated into a larger understanding of the patient. Elizabeth Board, founder of Atlanta Functional Medicine, states that “genetic testing provides valuable considerations in the development of a patient’s treatment plan but must be accompanied by the patient’s lifestyle, nutrition, environmental exposures, and informative labs in order to reap its combined full potential.”
– THAT GENETIC TESTING IS ONLY USED TO PREDICT DISEASE
While practitioners can use genetic testing to screen for disease, including the BRCA1 and FH genes, this is rare. Practitioners will in most cases use genetic testing to look at groupings of gene variants to create holistic preventative or treatment plans. That way, practitioners aren’t just looking for one specific disease marker, but are able to create a plan of recommendations that can heal or prevent many diseases.
Overcoming These Misconceptions
Simply knowing that misconceptions exist around genetic testing can help raise awareness around the promises and benefits of genetic testing, and what still needs to be learned.
First, debunking myths around genetic testing starts with practitioner education around the benefits of genetic testing for their patients, and exposure to the industry around it.
Second, consumers need to become more aware of the value genetic testing can provide beyond just understanding their family history, and how it can impact their quality of life by helping them make better choices.
Third, the industry needs more transparency into how testing companies handle their samples, what their science is, and how they’re protecting consumer data.
Finally, overcoming misconceptions is going to come through experience: Practitioners expanding their understanding of how genetic testing can help their patients, patients applying the changes and recommendations, and both seeing real results of their efforts.
The Benefits of Bringing Genetic Testing into Your Practice
Traditionally, practitioners are taught to evaluate patients based on medical and health history, reported symptoms or diseases, and what’s measured through a blood test. But because how patients respond to the world around them and who they are is mostly determined by their genes, practitioners are often blind to significant aspects of their patients. Incorporating genetic testing into your practice can not only help your patients, but provide your practice with a number of other benefits as well.
5 Tangible Benefits Genetic Testing Brings to Your Patients
#1 BETTER CLARITY
If you could give your patients better clarity into how they respond to the world around them, would you? Genetic testing can fill in the gaps of the unknown unknowns. “Genetic testing is a great tool in functional medicine testing, and has helped several of my patients in managing their diseases,” states Anshul Gupta, a Functional Medicine MD. “There are so many different SNPs that can help us to identify the underlying problem of my patients.”
#2 BETTER FOCUS
Getting tested can provide a great starting point for patient care, and better focus on which changes need to be made to have the greatest impact on a patient’s health. Kike Oduba MBBS, MPH, says that genetic testing helps patients “know the root causes of their health issues at the cellular level, coupled with the ability to prevent future ailments through proactive measures that can be taken if done early.”
#3 BETTER FOOD CHOICES
Understanding gene functionality and its response to food can lead to suggesting better nutritional choices so you can optimize your patients’ biochemical processes. Betty Murray, CEO of Living Well Dallas, states of her practice that “we are already able to guide patients and individualized plans for optimal wellness with genetic testing and metabolic metabolites to personalize dietary and nutritional supplement recommendations.”
#4: BETTER SCREENING
Does your patient need more testing? Genetics is a great screening tool that enables the practitioner the ability to decide if further testing is required to answer more specific questions. “I’ve used genetic testing to provide insight into methylation issues, broken detox pathways, increased cardiovascular risk, and tendency to anxiety,” explains Brandy Zachary, D.C. “Testing has allowed me to really customize protocols and fine tune my supplementation recommendations.”
#5: BETTER SUPPLEMENTS
Genetics lets practitioners narrow down supplement recommendations for their patients by narrowing down their options to the ones that will make the most impact. When it comes to looking at specific SNPs, Jennifer Kessmann, MD uses “MTHFR, COMT, CBS, and APOE quite a bit in practice. It is nice to see patterns that create issues and be able to correct them with the correct supplements and changes.”
5 Tangible Benefits Genetic Testing Brings to Your Practice
#1 BETTER TREATMENT
Genetic testing allows practitioners to improve their treatment by offering more personalization and tailored actionable recommendations. This will always result in better care. “My experience is that it has massive potential to help guide personalized interventions and lifestyle changes,” says David M. Brady, Chief Medical Officer of Designs for Health, Inc. “Clinicians need to realize that genomics are very valuable, but only when clinically contextualized and put into the proper perspective.”
#2 BETTER VERSATILITY
While genetic testing may be one tool to add to a practitioner’s toolbox, it provides a number of different functions: It can help with preventative care, provide better screening, pair with other tests for better clinical assessment, give insight into functional testing, and more. For Rachel Headings, a virtual functional medicine practitioner, “each client is so unique… I also love interpreting functional labs and designing personalized protocols. It takes the guesswork out of the treatment plan.”
#3 BETTER CUSTOMER SERVICE
In our recent report on “The State of Genetic Testing & Nutrition 2021,” we found that patients are actually asking for genetic testing, and looking for this offering in their practitioners. This also indicates that patients are looking to be more proactive with their health, and are looking for practitioners who can help them. Fera K Butts, a Functional Medicine Practitioner, has had “a number of patients that are interested in learning more about their genetics. The more patients become educated about their overall health, the more they are interested in learning all they can about their genetics.”
#4 BETTER RESULTS
Understanding a patient’s genetic make-up means helping them make better nutrition and lifestyle choices — like what to eat, what exercise to partake in, and what supplements to take — that can affect their life for the better. According to our “The State of Genetic Testing & Nutrition 2021” report, practitioners see genetic testing adding value to patient lives, as it improves the ability to personalize treatment, has predictive value and allows preventative measures, improves clinical assessment, informs functional testing, and more.
#5 BETTER COMPETITIVE EDGE
Offering genetic testing can be a differentiator to your practice over others. This can not only give you a competitive edge, but can attract new patients, and increase revenue. For Zac Watkins, founder of The Livewell Clinic, functional medicine “is about more than just which test to run and which nutritional medicine to use. There are the business aspects, operations management, and marketing. Although we are health providers, in this space, we need to know how to do these well or we will not survive.”
How to Choose a Genetic Testing Partner
It may be confusing to know which genetic testing company to work with in order to provide more tailored care to your patients, but it’s not impossible. We recommend starting with the following questions to help you find a trustworthy, professional partner.
- Who are the scientists and clinicians who have built the genetic test? What are their qualifications and experience?
- Is there a Scientific and Medical Advisory Board and what role do they play in oversight?
- What criteria does the company use when they choose gene variants to include in their tests? Is this criteria transparent to everyone?
- Do they state exactly which gene variants are tested? (They should give the rs number of the variant.)
- Considering that scientific validity is a key factor, how do they establish if the science is good enough to use the gene variant in a test?
- What is its clinical utility? Or, is this test clinically useful? For example, will including the gene variant help the practitioner make a different diet or lifestyle recommendation than if they didn’t have this information?
- Is the company making diet, supplement, and lifestyle recommendations based on a single gene variant only, which may be over-reaching the science? Or do they look at a number of gene variants?
- What laboratory is processing the genetic test? Does it comply with accepted quality standards? What certification does the laboratory have?
- How does the lab manage the sample? Is the DNA destroyed or banked?
- What is the turn-around time of the process?
- Information about the purpose and appropriateness of testing should be given before the test is done, so is it clear what the test is testing for and what kind of information you can expect to receive? Have they shared a sample report?
- All claims regarding genetic tests should be transparent, advertisement should be unbiased, and marketing of genetic tests should be fair. Does the company make claims that go beyond the power of low penetrance gene variations?
- Respect should always be given to relevant ethical principles. In what way has the company addressed ethical issues?
- What education does the genetics company offer? Do they offer foundational training in nutrigenomics, or do they only offer product training? What continuing education opportunities do they offer?
- Do they offer mentorship so that when you work with their tests, you have someone to turn to for guidance and assistance?
- Do they have a community where you can connect with like-minded practitioners to learn from each other and support each other?
Why Now is the Time
As information and awareness has increased over the past few decades around diet, nutrition, and fitness, we’ve learned that one-size-fits-all, population-based diet and lifestyle guidelines are ineffective. How can they be, if every individual is distinctly unique, and responds differently to the food they eat, the exercise they do, the environment around them, and even the stressors they encounter?
In order to be more effective at guiding patients to better lives, practitioners need to understand their patients much deeper — even to the cellular level. It’s about addressing who they are, and tailoring their care accordingly. If practitioners are not using genetics to help fill in the information about their patients, then they’re not fully utilizing all the tools they can to be successful and impactful healthcare providers.