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

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Last year we started the telegenetics initiative, which is small compared to the VA—it is comprised of 2 geneticists and 1 genetic counselor—but with the full intent of growing it over time. Its purpose is to extend the resources we
had to other MTFs. Genetics professionals stationed state-side can provide care to remote facilities with limited access to local genetics support such as Cannon Air Force Base (AFB) or overseas facilities such as Spangdahlem AFB in Germany.

We recognize there are military-specific needs for the DoD regarding the genetic counseling process that have to take into account readiness, genetic discrimination, continued ability to serve and fitness for duty. For this important reason, we are seeking to expand our telegenetics initiative. The goal is to be able to provide 100% of all genetic counseling in-house, so to speak.

Currently, providers at the 4 pilot sites (Cannon AFB, Fort Bragg, Spangdahlem AFB, and Guantanamo Bay) send us referrals. We triage them and assign the patient to see a geneticist or a counselor depending on the indication.

On the laboratory side, it has been a very interesting experience. Because we provide comprehensive germline cancer testing at very little cost to the provider at any MTF, we have had high numbers of test requests over the years.
In addition to saving the DoD millions of dollars in testing, we have learned some interesting lessons in the process. For instance, we have worked closely with several different groups to better understand how to educate providers on the genetic counseling and testing process. This has allowed us to craft a thorough and inclusive consent form that addresses the needs of the DoD. We have also learned valuable lessons about population-based screening vs evidence-based testing, and lessons surrounding narrow-based testing ( BRCA1 and BRCA2 only testing) vs ordering a more comprehensive panel that includes other genes supported by strong evidence (such as PALB2, CHEK2, or TP53).

For example, we have found that in a significant proportion of individuals with and without family history, there are clinically relevant variants in genes other than BRCA1 or BRCA2. And so, we have made part of our consent process,
a statement on secondary findings. If the patient consents, we will report pathogenic variants in other genes known to be associated with cancer (with strong evidence) even if the provider ordered a narrow panel such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 testing only. In about 1% to 4% of patients that would otherwise not meet NCCN guidelines, we’ve reported variants that were clinically actionable and changed the medical management of that patient.

We feel strongly that this is a conversation that we need to have in our field, and we realize it’s a complex issue, maybe we need to expand who gets testing. Guideline based testing is missing some patients out there that could benefit from it.

Vickie Venne. There certainly are many sides to the conversation of population-based vs evidence-based genetic testing. Genetic testing policies are changing rapidly. There are teams exploring comprehensive gene sequencing for
newborns and how that potential 1-time test can provide information will be reinterpreted as a person goes from cradle to grave. However, unlike the current DoD process, in the VA there are patients who we don’t see.


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