Genomic Medicine and Genetic Counseling in the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense

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Lisa Arfons, MD. When patients come in with newly diagnosed cancer, breast for example, it is an emotional diagnosis and psychologicallydistressing. Oftentimes, they want to know why this happened to them. The issues surrounding
genetic testing also becomes very emotional. They want to know whether their children are at risk as well.

Genetic discussions take a long time. I rarely do that on the first visit. I always record for myself in my clinic note if something strikes me regarding the patient’s diagnosis. I quickly run through the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines to remind myself of what I need to go over with the patient at our next meeting. Most patients don’t need to be referred to GMS, and most patients don’t need to be tested once they’re seen.

I often save the referral discussion for after I have established a rapport with a patient, we have a treatment plan, or they already have had their first surgery. Therefore, we are not making decisions about their first surgery based on the genetic medicine results.

If I’m considering a referral, I do a deeper dive with the patient. Is the patient older or younger than 45 years? I pull up NCCN guidelines and we go through the entire checklist.

We have male breast cancer patients at the VA—probably more than the community—so we refer those patients. At the Louis Stokes Cleveland VAMC in Ohio, we have had some in-depth discussions about referring male breast cancer patients for genetic testing and whether it was beneficial to older patients with male breast cancer. Ultimately, we decided that it was important for our male veterans to be tested because it empowered them to have better understanding of their medical conditions that may not just have effect on them but on their offspring, and that that can be a source of psychological and emotional support.

I don’t refer most people to GMS once I go through the checklist. I appreciate the action for an e-consult within the CPRS telemedicine consult itself, as Renee noted. If it is not necessary, GMS makes it an e-consult. I try to communicate that I don’t know whether it is necessary or not so that GMS understands where I’m coming from.

Vickie Venne. In the US Department of Defense (DoD) the process is quite different. Mauricio, can you explain the clinical referral process, who is referred, and how that works from a laboratory perspective?

Maj De Castro, MD, FACMG, USAF. The VA has led the way in demonstrating how to best provide for the medical genetic needs of a large, decentralized population distributed all over the country. Over the last 5 to 10 years, the DoD has made strides in recognizing the role genetics plays in the practice of everyday medicine and redoubling efforts to meet the needs of servicemembers.

The way that it traditionally has worked in the DoD is that military treatment facilities (MTFs) that have dedicated geneticists and genetic counselors: Kessler Medical Center in Mississippi, Walter Reed National Military Medical
Center in Maryland, Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington, Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, Naval Medical Center San Diego in California, and Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia. A patient seeking genetic evaluation, counseling, or testing in those larger facilities would be referred to the genetics service by their primary care manager. Wait times vary, but it would usually be weeks, maybe months. However, the great majority of MTFs do not have dedicated genetics support. Most of the time, those patients would have to be referred to the local civilian community—there was no process for them to be seen in in the military healthcare system—with wait times that exceed 6 to 8 months in some cases. This is due to just not a military but a national shortage of genetics professionals (counselors and physicians).


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