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US and Canadian Companies Hope to Start Profiling Employees' Genetic Makeup

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In a step that expands the typical scope of employee wellness benefits, companies are looking to integrate genetic testing into healthcare offerings.

Big companies in the US and Canada want to blend genetic testing with coaching and nutrition to help their employees lose weight and identify serious health risks, such as diabetes or heart disease, that are grounded in genetic history.

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The approach would also give employers the benefit of cutting down on healthcare costs, which is often one of the biggest expenses in a company’s budget.

While integrating genetics into employee wellness programs is a relatively novel concept, it does have some precedence. Some employers and insurers already cover similar tests to help employees determine whether or not they are prone to certain cancers, for instance. Earlier this year, President Obama also asked Congress to approve spending on medical research that would use a patient’s genetic history for tailored healthcare.

Standing at the forefront of this new approach are health insurer Aetna and Newtopia, a small Canadian company that uses personalized healthcare programs. In February, Newtopia signed a contract to provide Aetna’s customers with the personalized program that use genetic testing and behavioral science to identify metabolic syndromes vulnerabilities.

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The new program was tested on employees of Aetna and the Maine-based Jackson Laboratory. It works by identifying the co-occurrence of various conditions like high blood pressure, poor cholesterol, and large bodyweight. The presence of all these conditions would indicate an increased likelihood of heart disease, stroke or diabetes.

In this case, patients are invited for testing on a narrow band of genes that can help them understand how their bodies process carbohydrates and fats, or whether their conditions are tied to a genetic trait. They then work with coaches to combine that information with health improvement plans.

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Following the pilot test, the companies began selling their program to some of Aetna’s biggest employer customers and are looking to sign up an additional six companies this year. According to Aetna spokeswoman Michelle Grant, the cost for companies will be on par with other disease prevention programs.

Despite the apparent benefits to both employees and employers, many experts are skeptical that the novel approach will gain any momentum. For one thing, employees may be concerned about providing such sensitive information. Employers may also be unconvinced by the effectiveness of the program.

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