Workplace Genomics: Reducing Barriers and Creating Value

Posted by Lisa Alderson

At the 2020 Precision Medicine World Conference, I moderated a panel titled, “Workplace Genomics: How Employers Are Adopting Genetics and Genomics for Their Members”. It featured representatives of four employers that are providing some form of genetic health benefits to their employees. Their offerings range from a very targeted executive health program to a broad education-focused benefit available to all employees and their extended families.

And as their programs differ, so do their goals. We are seeing increasing interest in genetic benefit programs among employers. They are generally motivated by one of two factors:

  1. Bringing standard of care in genetics to employees. These health services are generally not accessible today, even when covered by insurance. Opening up access results in greater convenience and higher productivity for employees.
  2. Offering a desired benefit to employees in a highly competitive hiring environment, with the goal of attracting and retaining the best talent.  
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Pat Leckman, VP of Human Resources at Illumina, wanted to impact as many employees as she could by prioritizing initiatives that help people understand their genetics and related health risks, as well as genetic testing options. And she realized early on that her HR team members weren’t the right ones to handle complex, personal questions from employees.

“We needed to get these individuals who have queries or concerns, or actually a diagnosis that is genetically based, to a professional who can help through this journey,” Leckman said. “What we’re trying to do is to catch those individuals in the moment when they really need it.”

Illumina’s workplace genomics benefit program features genetic counseling as the gateway to a broader array of services -- a similar model adopted in partnership with Genome Medical by Exact Sciences and Novartis, albeit in distinctly different ways. Exact Sciences has taken a broad approach like Illumina, while Novartis has introduced a Genome Medical-managed benefit into its exclusive executive benefits program. While the program is still growing, Novartis is seeing meaningful results with both common genetic variants and more rare findings.

“We have very serious talks with our executives, and we try and contextualize it in partnership with the genetic counselors at Genome Medical to figure out what does this mean for the individual and their kids,” said Rob Goldsmith, MD, executive director of corporate employee health at Novartis. “Having an expert to help interpret and contextualize those results is critically important. The reality is that the test itself, without the proper context upfront and interpretation in the back, is not really all that valuable. I would encourage employers that are looking to get into that sort of service to make sure that it’s not a test but rather a program.”

Cisco chose a testing-based approach, but focused on gene variants related to breast cancer (BRCA), which have strong clinical evidence and high medical actionability, according to Jeffrey Davis, Corporate Medical Director. Cisco works with United and Cigna for coverage of this benefit. As an in-network provider with Cigna, Genome Medical’s services are available to employees covered by Cigna. This is true for virtually all employers offering Cigna to their employees. Please inquire with Genome Medical or Cigna for more information.   

In the case of Novartis, the company works closely with Genome Medical and directly with the individual executives on what to do with test results. On the other side of the spectrum, both Illumina and Exact Sciences stay completely out of the process; they rely on a fully outsourced model where Genome Medical handles all interactions to ensure employee confidentiality and privacy.

“Not everybody knows if they want genetic testing. It’s a very personal decision, and the counseling is very important to our employees in that respect,” said Annette Falkowski, a member of the total rewards team at Exact Sciences. “They can ask questions and make a personal decision after talking to a genetic counselor and really considering the pros and cons. That part of the benefit is very important.”

Leckman also noted that her evaluation of whether Illumina’s workplace genomics program has been successful goes beyond standard return-on-investment measures. She looks at the “value of investment” -- meaning how the benefit has helped with retention, employee engagement and satisfaction, and similar metrics.

“My HR colleagues ask me, ‘How is this going to bring down my medical costs?’, Leckman said. “I don’t know that yet. I honestly don’t have that information. But I do have five stories of people where it was a life changing discovery for them. It made a great impact for them and they are so thankful that Illumina bought this benefit.”

To learn more about genetic health benefits programs that can be customized and managed by Genome Medical, visit the Employers partners page

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