Should your employer know your genes? Genetic testing coming to a wellness program near you

Workplace wellness programs might be getting a bit more invasive. Some companies are debating whether to include genetic testing in the hopes of offering more individually-tailored coaching or other interventions to improve employee health.

This type of specificity might be what’s missing in current wellness programs. I’ve written before about some of the serious limitations of current workplace wellness programs. Research to date doesn’t match the rhetoric about reducing health care costs and improving health. DNA

Now, I’m all in favor of a more individualized approach to wellness. We all bring a unique mixture of variables to the table, not just genetic, but also environmental and psychological. This is where individual testing and biomarker tracker comes in. Companies like WellnessFX and InsideTracker offer various testing packages for individuals and online platforms to allow them to track different biomarkers over time. These biomarkers can provide helpful insights for individuals about the status of their cardiovascular, metabolic, or endocrine health.

But genetic testing is different. It looks more at inputs rather than outputs. Let’s take the case of tracking your triglycerides. The number that you see after you take a lipid panel is the combination of genetic and environmental factors. These factors (including lifestyle choices) come together to influence that number you see on the test. So, you’re modifying some of the inputs (i.e. environmental or lifestyle factors like diet, for example, because your genetics don’t change) and measuring the output.

With genetic testing, you’re looking at one of the inputs to triglycerides. Because there is a genetic component to heart disease risk (and high triglycerides being one way of being at high risk), this might be good to know.

The question, though, is which has a greater influence on disease risk: genetics or environment? Or do they both contribute equally? Well, much of the research suggests that environment plays a much bigger role. In fact, there’s even a huge field of study – called epigenetics – which looks at how one might manipulate or change their environmental to influence the expression of certain genetic traits. In other words, certain environmental characteristics may in essence trigger the expression of certain genes. So, this is to say, genetics may not entirely be destiny, and therefore might only tell part of the story.

But I see two big issues looming: data use and data security. The U.S. Government sued Honeywell Inc. in October 2014 because the company applied monetary penalties to those employees who did not take biometric tests as part of the company’s wellness program. One could see a similar situation arising with how genetic tests are use. If an employee has a genetic risk for heart disease and they decline to enroll in the wellness program, will they be penalized?

The major challenge I think is all about privacy. Who will have access to an employee’s genetic information? How will it be stored? Who will “own” it? These are all huge unanswered questions in uncharted territory.

I hope we think about all of the risks and consider the unintended consequences of individuals disclosing more personal information.


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