Is genetic testing good for the insurance industry?

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is both good and bad for the insurance industry. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is both good and bad for the insurance industry.

ORLANDO — Genetic testing is nothing new. It started back in 1822 with Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, and his work on heredity.

Then there was Darwin, who talked about genetics extensively. Many of his theories are still accepted today.

And today we have direct-to-consumer genome testing (think 23andMe and AncestryDNA). For around $199 you can order a swab kit from a company, send it back, and within a short amount of time receive your complete, personalized genetic report. These reports can tell an individual information regarding their likelihood of developing heart disease or dementia, for example.

The public is interested, but is it good for insurers?  

The good and the bad

"Direct-to-consumer testing, I don’t see it as an issue to the insurance industry," said Bruce Empringham, M.D., vice president and medical director, individual life for Great-West Life. "It raises awareness and is likely good for insurance. This is leading people to health, which is in the best interest of insurers."

Speaking at the LIMRA Research & Marketing Conference in Orlando, Empringham reminded the audience that the insurance contract is based on good faith and full disclosure. So it is essential that each individual accurately completes all of the questions on the application for insurance.

But genetic testing gives us more truthful, exact information.  

Furthermore, with genetic testing, doctors can figure out which drugs to use to treat certain issues (such as high blood pressure) instead of experimenting on patients with expensive drugs, which is called personalized medicine).

"Everything we as an industry do is based on genetics," said Empringham. "We can’t ignore it. But if we know when we’re going to die, we don’t need life insurance, we need accidental death insurance. We’re a long time away from that, but doctors are thinking about it — it’s where it could go. 

Another downside to relying on genetic testing is that it "leads people to forget about the environmental causes of their issues or diseases," said Empringham. "It's easier to blame genetics than change behavior."

The future of all of this

"If clinical medicine becomes all about genetics, at some point we will need to integrate into our underwriting," said Empringham.

Future possibilities from genetic testing include:

    • Less reliance on very expensive medicine, and less wasted medication and time if medicines are targeted rather than doing the historical shotgun approach.

    • More efficient and appropriate claims payments.

    • Post-issue fluid underwriting.

"What if we know you might need critical illness care later in life," Empringham said. "That’s a CI opportunity."

Of course, genetic testing and its affect on the insurance industry is a complex issue. But, as Empringham said, it is part of our lives now. As an industry, we must adapt. 

See also:

Benefits idea: DNA testing

Genetic testing company turns DNA into dollars

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