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Can genetic testing improve patient outcomes?

TAGS: Innovation
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From forensics to archaeology to finding out if the Loch Ness Monster exists, DNA analysis is now a mainstream practice. So what does this mean for health care and health care insurers?

Very recently, researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand announced that the DNA they had collected from water samples could uncover the truth behind the Loch Ness Monster ─ the fabled creature that is said to inhabit the waters of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. While the efficacy of the research is a debate for another day, it does go to show just how far and wide our scientific understanding of deoxyribonucleic acid, otherwise known as DNA, now reaches.

This tiny double-helix structure has had an enormous impact across a wide range of fields, with advances meaning that DNA testing is now routinely used in criminal investigations, paternity cases, agriculture, archaeology, forensics and, of course, healthcare.

Medically speaking, innovation in DNA analysis has opened up a wealth of different options for early intervention, from new-born screening to diagnostic assessment to testing specifically for particular conditions, such as cystic fibrosis.

However, over and above this, perhaps one of the most exciting things DNA testing offers healthcare is the opportunity to effect positive behavioural change on a much larger scale, by tackling issues one person at a time.

In order to understand how what sounds like an oxymoron can work – and why this is such an exciting prospect – we need to start by looking at the bigger picture.

A positive influence

While we know that there are certain components that will have a positive influence on everyone’s health and well-being – a balanced diet, a good night’s sleep or regular exercise – what we’re not always aware of is exactly how these things personally affect us. You might be able to drink caffeine directly before bed without any ill effect, for example, whereas it could keep me up all night.

Just as precision medicine (focusing on the approaches that are most effective for individuals based on genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors) brings tangible benefits, so does understanding your own body’s responses to certain foods or cardio exercise over weight-training. It can offer both insight and reassurance that you’re on the right path to wellness and tailoring your approach to health in a way that makes most sense to you. And if these insights can be accompanied by the option of a follow-up consultation with a nutrition or fitness expert, so much the better.

A growing market

The huge rise of popularity when it comes to genetic testing market is an ascent that shows no signs of slowing — a simple Google search will pull up several organisations in the UAE offering DNA testing. It should come as no surprise then that the sector is projected to be worth US$22 billion by 2024, according to a report from Global Market Insights. So, it’s incumbent on medical insurers to keep on top of how developments might affect both the industry and their members’ quest for a healthy life.

Of course, the type of information a health and lifestyle DNA test can confer is only the tip of the iceberg – it’s what individuals do with it that counts. But there is evidence to suggest that the positive impact from finding out more about your genetics can be truly life changing.

For example, one study in Finland tracked 7,300 people over an 18-month period, after they had received their genetic risk information. It found that 88 per cent of participants were inspired to take better care of their health and around a fifth of those who smoked managed to give up. This compares well with a control group of the general population, where only 4 per cent gave up smoking.

It goes to show that knowledge can be truly empowering – whether it’s the truth about a mythical creature or staying engaged in your own health journey. 

References available on request.

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