Intermountain Readies Tests For Hereditary Cancer Syndromes

Posted on February 23, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare branding and communications expert with more than 25 years of industry experience. and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also worked extensively healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. She can be reached at @ziegerhealth or www.ziegerhealthcare.com.

Intermountain Healthcare has begun the process of validating and launching several tests designed to identify disease-causing hereditary genetic patterns. The work will be done through Intermountain Precision Genomics, which analyzes a patient’s genetic makeup. The data is then used by a team of molecular tumor specialists to plan a patient’s specialized course of treatment.

In a prepared statement, Intermountain notes that one area in which genetic testing can be particularly fruitful is in women with a history of breast and ovarian cancer. The statement cites a study noting that fewer than one in five individuals with a family history of breast cancer or ovarian cancer meeting certain guidelines have undergone genetic testing. Moreover, most have never discussed testing with a healthcare provider.

In its efforts, Intermountain hopes to find both individuals previously diagnosed with cancer and healthy individuals with hereditary cancer gene mutations. When these individuals get genetic counseling and testing, it sets the stage for them to get more frequent cancer screenings at younger ages, which in turn leads to critical early detection and treatment of many of these cancers.

In investing heavily in cancer prediction and treatment, Intermountain is hardly alone. What once was at best a specialty practice by cancer-specific hospitals is quickly becoming mainstream.

The practice of screening women for genetic triggers that might boost the risk of certain cancers has moved quickly from idea to action among hospitals. I don’t have a number to hand, but I remember reading that it can take decades before a scientific discovery in healthcare actually impacts patients.  Clearly, the growth of precision medicine is a dramatic exception.

Given the increasing benefits to be had from genetic testing and targeted treatment, we are seeing nothing less than an explosion in awareness and investment. Not surprisingly, hospitals are jumping into the market with both feet as, to be a bit crass, there’s a lot of money in effectively treating cancer.

Of course, some of the buzz around precision medicine may turn out to be just that, buzz. As my colleague has pointed out, EMR systems weren’t built to enable precision medicine, but rather, billing engines. He also notes that these systems aren’t built for real-time availability of data analytics, which makes it hard to use them for personalized medicine. As he puts it, “I’ve heard precision medicine defined as a puzzle with 3 billion pieces.”

Still, as a middle-aged lady with a history of cancer in her family, these developments give me hope. Someday, genetic testing like Intermountain’s will improve my care should I ever face breast or ovarian cancer. If nothing else, we are off to a good start.