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Genetic Testing as Part of Primary Care and Precision Medicine is Underway at NorthShore University HealthSystem and Geisinger Health

Both health systems will use their EHRs to track genetic testing data and plan to bring genetic data to primary care physicians

Clinical laboratories and pathology groups face a big challenge in how to get appropriate genetic and molecular data into electronic health record (EHR) systems in ways that are helpful for physicians. Precision medicine faces many barriers and this is one of the biggest. Aside from the sheer enormity of the data, there’s the question of making it useful and accessible for patient care. Thus, when two major healthcare systems resolve to accomplish this with their EHRs, laboratory managers and pathologists should take notice.

NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois and Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are working to make genetic testing part of primary care. And both reached similar conclusions regarding the best way for primary care physicians to make use of the information.

One area of common interest is pharmacogenomics.

At NorthShore, two genetic testing programs—MedClueRx and the Genetic and Wellness Assessment—provide doctors with more information about how their patients metabolize certain drugs and whether or not their medical and family histories suggest they need further, more specific genetic testing.

“We’re not trying to make all of our primary care physicians into genomic experts. That is a difficult strategy that really isn’t scalable. But we’re giving them enough tools to help them feel comfortable,” Peter Hulick, MD, Director of the Center for Personalized Medicine at NorthShore, told Healthcare IT News.

Conversely, Geisinger has made genomic testing an automated part of primary care. When patients visit their primary care physicians, they are asked to sign a release and undergo whole genome sequencing. An article in For the Record describes Geisinger’s program:

“The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics classifies 59 genes as clinically actionable, with an additional 21 others recommended by Geisinger. If a pathogenic or likely pathogenic variant is found in one of those 80 genes, the patient and the primary care provider are notified.”

William Andrew Faucett (left) is Director of Policy and Education, Office of the Chief Scientific Officer at Geisinger Health; and Peter Hulick, MD (right), is Director of the Center for Personalized Medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem. Both are leading programs at their respective healthcare networks to improve precision medicine and primary care by including genetic testing data and accessibility to it in their patients’ EHRs. (Photo copyrights: Geisinger/NorthShore University HealthSystem.)

The EHR as the Way to Access Genetic Test Results

Both NorthShore and Geisinger selected their EHRs for making important genetic information accessible to primary care physicians, as well as an avenue for tracking that information over time.

Hulick told Healthcare IT News that NorthShore decided to make small changes to their existing Epic EHR that would enable seemingly simple but actually complex actions to take place. For example, tracking the results of a genetic test within the EHR. According to Hulick, making the genetic test results trackable creates a “variant repository,” also known as a Clinical Data Repository.

“Once you have that, you can start to link it to other information that’s known about the patient: family history status, etc.,” he explained. “And you can start to build an infrastructure around it and use some of the tools for clinical decision support that are used in other areas: drug/drug interactions, reminders for flu vaccinations, and you can start to build on those decision support tools but apply them to genomics.”

Like NorthShore, Geisinger is also using its EHR to make genetic testing information available to primary care physician when a problem variant is identified. They use EHR products from both Epic and Cerner and are working with both companies to streamline and simplify the processes related to genetic testing. When a potentially problematic variant is found, it is listed in the EHR’s problem list, similar to other health issues.

Geisinger has developed a reporting system called GenomeCOMPASS, which notifies patients of their results and provides related information. It also enables patients to connect with a geneticist. GenomeCOMPASS has a physician-facing side where primary care doctors receive the results and have access to more information.

Andrew Faucett, Senior Investigator (Professor) and Director of Policy and Education, Office of the Chief Scientific Officer at Geisinger, compares the interpretation of genetic testing to any other kind of medical testing. “If a patient gets an MRI, the primary care physicians doesn’t interpret it—the radiologist does,” adding, “Doctors want to help patients follow the recommendations of the experts,” he told For the Record.

The Unknown Factor

Even though researchers regularly make new discoveries in genomics, physicians practicing today have had little, if any, training on how to incorporate genetics into their patients’ care. Combine that lack of knowledge and training with the current lack of EHR interoperability and the challenges in using genetic testing for precision medicine multiply to a staggering degree.

One thing that is certain: the scientific community will continue to gather knowledge that can be applied to improving the health of patients. Medical pathology laboratories will play a critical role in both testing and helping ensure results are useful and accessible, now and in the future.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

Introducing “Genomics and Precision Health”

How NorthShore Tweaked Its Epic EHR to Put Precision Medicine into Routine Clinical Workflows

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