Employee wellness plans may soon add genetic tests
Your employer may one day help determine if your genes are why your jeans have become too snug.
Big companies are considering blending genetic testing with coaching on nutrition and exercise to help workers lose weight and improve their health before serious conditions like diabetes or heart disease develop. It’s a step beyond the typical corporate wellness programs that many companies are using to make workers more aware of their risk factors and improve their health.
Genetic testing in corporate wellness programs also is relatively uncharted territory. Many employers and insurers cover these tests and counseling for medical reasons, like helping people determine if they are more prone to certain cancers.
Mixing generic testing into a wellness program may create a tool attractive to employers desperate to cut health care costs, one of the biggest expenses in a company’s budget. But employee benefits experts have doubts that such a novel approach will gain momentum. It first has to conquer steep challenges like employee worry about sharing such sensitive information and employer skepticism about its effectiveness.
“They are waiting for evidence that this genetic testing will change risks,” said Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, a senior consultant with the benefits consulting firm Towers Watson.
Sparking the push to add genetic testing into corporate wellness offerings is a new program from the health insurer Aetna and Newtopia, a small Canadian company that creates personalized health-improvement programs. Their offering uses data from initial wellness program steps like physicals or blood tests to figure out which employees are vulnerable to metabolic syndrome.
That’s a group of conditions like high blood sugar, poor cholesterol or a big waistline that, when they occur together, increase a patient’s risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Those people are invited to get testing that analyzes a narrow band of genes that can tell patients things like how their body processes carbohydrates or fats, or if they have a genetic marker tied to compulsive eating. Patients then work with a coach to combine that information with a plan to improve their health.
Aetna and Newtopia are selling their program to the insurer’s biggest employer customers, and they are seeking to sign up to six companies this year.