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The brave new world of genetic testing

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If you’re a “Star Wars” or “Spider-Man” fan, you already have a glimpse of how Hollywood views the future. But let’s forget George Lucas and comic books — let”s look at your future in serving senior clients. There’s something very futuristic about genetic testing and how it will shape your practice, but it’s not light years away — it?’s almost here.

The impact of how genetic testing will influence your practice needs to pondered now. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s already receiving considerable attention at leading medical centers, in private research centers and yes, among actuaries and executives at some of the leading companies that underwrite the policies and products you sell.

Why should you care? Well, here are four thoughts to ponder:

1. Enormous cost savings will result from genetic testing — the quality of which is increasing at a pace of about 10 percent annually — and that means the government is likely to accelerate research and development in how we detect medical disorders early, especially because of the profound impact of the 76 million boomers. We’re talking billions of dollars in health costs that could be eliminated if millions of procedures could be eliminated because disorders are diagnosed decades earlier.

2. About 1,200 genetic tests are available today, and they are already reducing the number and length of hospital stays. That’s bad news for hospitals and very good news for patients. Life spans will increase beyond the spans we have witnessed in recent years. Think about it: the advent of MRIs, stents and biomedicals have added as much as a decade to the average American’s life span in the past decade. With genetic testing, some scientists believe that another decade, or more, is achievable.

3. Genetic privacy is not assured. Get ready for major battles in public policy arenas. This issue won’t make it onto either party’s 2008 presidential platform, but you should start thinking about the implications for your clients. If MS, Parkinson’s, Addison’s disease and hundreds of other disorders are discovered during a routine insurance physical, or during a routine annual, who will process those findings? Should they be shielded from insurers? Isn’t that criminal? Isn’t it criminal for underwriters to not be informed? What if they are notified before you are able to grapple with the issues that will be enormous for the patient and their family? Who will manage pre-onset costs of care? What if the test is wrong and decisions are made based on that faulty data?

4. Once your entire DNA roadmap is documented, what should you do with it? Would you share it with your children? Their heirs? Do you want your health information on a digital chip in your wallet or purse? One company in Japan is already investing in a technology of this nature that they promise will be delivered by 2010.

The agenda of upcoming meetings of your local bar association or professional actuaries can’t ignore these issues and the hundreds of questions that will be driven into play as genetic testing is perfected in the next few years. It won’t be pretty. Some will claim that there are “profiling” issues embedded into the science. Others will argue that lives can be extended and enriched by knowing about disease that is already embedded into your body’s architecture. Some will say that seniors have the most to lose; others will say that by knowing the results of their children’s genetic roadmap, they may exclude some children from an estate that they are unlikely to ever see because of reduced life expectancy.


So… as we look at the future for boomers, one thing is for sure: genetic testing is going to raise hundreds of questions for clients, for advisors, for colleges and universities, for underwriters and just about everyone else. Any Jedi fan would love that journey.

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