Genetic testing appeals but its costs are worrisome

UnitedHealth Group’s Center for Health Reform & Modernization’s report on personalized medicine finds that doctors support the use of genetic testing to help diagnose disease and target prevention, but they are concerned about the costs of those tests.

“Genetic science offers unprecedented potential to prevent disease and improve diagnosis and treatment, ushering in an era of truly personalized care,” said Simon Stevens, executive vice president of the UnitedHealth Group and chairman of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization. “But for patients to realize these practical benefits, we will also need new models of research and care delivery combined with informed choice and appropriate consumer safeguards.”

According to the report, “Personalized medicine: Trends and prospects for the new science of genetic testing and molecular diagnostics,” genetic testing is currently available for about 2,500 conditions, including cancers and communicable diseases. Full genome sequencing, which maps an individual’s entire genetic code, is also expected to become widely available, possibly as soon as this year.

[See also: Personalized medicine market exceeds $28B in 2011.]

The survey finds that a majority of U.S. doctors say that genetic testing will improve care across a range of health problems in the future, allowing for more personalized medical decisions and more targeted choice of therapy. On average, physicians report having recommended genetic testing for 4 percent of their patients over the past year. Looking ahead five years, physicians on average feel that 14 percent of their patients will have had a genetic test; however, nearly three of every five doctors say they are very concerned about the cost of genetic tests.

Included in the report is an analysis of the experience of individuals covered by UnitedHealthcare showing that the cost of genetic and molecular diagnostic testing for UnitedHealthcare health plan participants in 2010 was approximately $500 million.

Per-person spending on genetic testing for UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare and Medicaid members was higher than for UnitedHealthcare’s employer-sponsored and individually insured population by 16 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Extrapolating from these data, the report suggests that national spending on these services in 2010 may have reached around $5 billion. Looking forward, the report projects that spending on genetic testing may reach between $15 billion and $25 billion annually in the United States by 2021.