Undergoing genetic testing also can impact the cost and availability of life insurance in Australia, not just for the person who underwent the testing, but for their families as well

Concerns about direct-to-consumer genetic testing have led to stricter regulatory requirements for Clinical laboratories that perform genetic tests in Australia.

Starting in July 2017, medical laboratories that perform genetic testing must have accreditation by the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA). And their tests must meet performance standards established by the National Pathology Accreditation Advisory Council. Manufacturers must also obtain a conformity assessment certificate from the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the organization that regulates medical devices, medicines, blood, and tissue in Australia.

According to the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), there are currently 220 deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) diagnostic tests available in Australia. There are 44 different laboratories located throughout the country that perform those tests. A database of the available tests and labs is maintained by the Human Genetics Society of Australasia (HGSA).

However, Australian citizens are not limited to just the tests and labs listed by the HGSA. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits, which are marketed through retail outlets, mail order, and the Internet, also can be used to obtain genetic information. However, receipt of genetic test results can be problematic and have negative consequences, say some experts.

Genetic Tests Can Cause Confusion; Affect Insurance

A recent paper, authored by researchers at Monash University, outlined apprehension about home genetic testing and how it can have a negative impact on people’s lives and insurance rates. The authors claim the tests can be misleading, noting concerns that the results are often interpreted by people who lack proper training. They cautioned that providers in other countries are not subject to the strict laws that govern genetic testing in Australia. Monash University is Australia’s largest university with facilities and campuses in Australia, Malaysia, South Africa, China, India, and Italy.

“In the age of individuality and consumer empowerment, some people want to take things into their own hands, but that’s not without its risks,” stated Ken Harvey, MBBS (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery), in a Special Broadcast Service (SBS) article. Dr. Harvey is an FRCPA (Pathologist) and Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, and one of the authors of the paper. “If you’re getting something over the internet it can be really difficult to assess whether that test has been accredited by a reputable independent authority.”

DTC genetic test order increase

The chart above tracks the collective annual test volume of just three direct-to-consumer (DTC) providers of genetic test in the US. It illustrates the steep rise in DTC genetic test usage among US-based healthcare consumers. Clinical laboratories could chart a similar progression tracking the increase in DTC genetic testing they have performed in just the past few years. (Image copyright: University of Iowa Wiki.)

In addition, the results of home genetic tests have to be translated and explained to consumers by a medical professional, often a General Practitioner (GP), which, according to the Australian researchers, can lead to confusion.

“Though the results would go back to the GPs, many GPs really had no idea what to do with these results when they got them”, Harvey noted in the SBS article. “I’ve had GPs tell me one of their patients comes in clutching a handful of printouts about their genetic tests, and they say, ‘what am I meant to do with this?’”

Why Genetic Testing is Important

One person who understands the urge to try genetic testing is Heather Renton, Founder and President of Syndromes Without a Name (SWAN) Australia, a not-for-profit incorporated association and charity that works to increase awareness and understanding of the impact and prevalence of undiagnosed genetic conditions.

After being misdiagnosed multiple times, it was discovered that Renton’s daughter had the rare FOXP1 gene. Individuals with the FOXP1 genetic disorder have delayed speech and learning issues, sometimes with signs of autism. Symptoms of the condition include:

  • Speech and learning disabilities;
  • Immune system issues; and
  • Behavioral abnormalities.

“People are sometimes so desperate for answers, [but] who’s to know that it’s credible—you might think you’ve got this gene and it might turn out that you don’t,” Renton stated in the SBS article.

“You might have a gene susceptible to breast cancer the older you get, but as a 20-year-old you have no idea you’ve got that,” she continued. “Life’s a lottery game.”

Why Genetic Testing Can Cause Problems

Nevertheless, some individuals may not welcome the results that genetic testing could reveal.

“If you get one of these batteries of genetic tests, the implication is these are genetic conditions that can be inherited; the results are not just important or significant to you, but to your family members, your children, etc.,” Harvey stressed. “The implications go beyond a particular person—and not everyone wants to know.”

“For some families, it’s been life shattering to find out they’ve actually passed this condition on to their child, and they carry this guilt,” Renton added.

Genetic Test Results Can Affect Insurance Premiums/Availability

Results of genetic tests also could affect the costs and availability of life insurance policies in Australia that went into effect after July.

Under the Insurance Contracts Act, Australians applying for life insurance are required to disclose:

  • Their medical history;
  • Information about the health of first degree relatives (parents, siblings, and children); and
  • The known results of any genetic testing.

Life insurance policies in Australia are guaranteed renewable. This means consumers do not have to inform insurers of changes in their medical conditions after policies have been issued. It is forbidden for insurers to demand that consumers have any genetic testing performed. However, if a consumer has had a genetic test performed and knows the results before the policy is issued, those results must be divulged to the insurer. That information can then be used to determine policy rates or deny coverage.

Could This Happen In the US?

In the United States, some genetic testing is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the processes that oversee medical devices. The FDA has proposed regulating laboratory-developed tests (LDTs), which would bring more genetic testing under the agency’s scrutiny. As direct-to-consumer genetic testing becomes more advanced and is marketed to the public, it is probable that regulatory oversight of labs performing these tests also will increase in an effort to protect the public. Thus, clinical laboratories and pathology groups are advised to monitor this situation in Australia.  Similar regulatory actions could be taken in the US as well.

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

‘Not Everyone Wants to Know’: Warnings Over Genetic Tests

Warning Over Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Tests

Retail Genetics

Growth in DTC Genetic Testing

Thinking About Life Insurance Through a Genetic Lens

Life Insurance Products and Genetic Testing in Australia

British Health Authorities Criticize Medical Laboratory Tests for Consumers

Medical Laboratory Tests for Consumers Under Investigation on Two Continents