Sanford Health Invests Big in Genetic Testing

January 8, 2014

Sanford Health is making a major bet on genetic testing in primary patient care, despite uncertainties about the reliability of some tests and whether they actually help people improve their health.

Through a $125 million gift from benefactor T. Denny Sanford, announced Tuesday, the sprawling South Dakota-based medical network will be one of the first in the nation to place genetic counselors in internal medicine clinics and to certify primary care doctors in genetic testing.

The investment comes at a time when consumer interest in tests that can detect genetic mutations or predict elevated risks for certain diseases is surging. Nationally, spending on genetic and molecular diagnostic testing grew to $5.5 billion in 2011, a 13 percent increase from 2010, and is expected to grow at a similar pace for the next five years, according to a recent report from the Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization. The U and its clinical affiliate, Fairview Health Services, are in the process of expanding genetic testing.

Proven forms of genetic testing— such as determining how patients tolerate and metabolize certain drugs— could show up as soon as this spring at Sanford internal-medicine clinics in Bemidji and Fargo, along with clinical research that could bring other tests into the mainstream. Ultimately, Sanford executives say, genetic testing can become a path to “precision medicine” by which patients receive the care they need and avoid care that is unnecessary or could cause complications.

“In the long run, I really am a believer that all patients will benefit from a broad survey of genetic markers that will give their physicians a picture of the diseases that they are at risk for,” said Dr. Gene Hoyme, president of Sanford Research, based in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Tests for a set of genetic mutations known as BRCA, which predict a heightened risk of breast cancer, are now well known, and other tests can similarly predict elevated risks for certain cancers, some types of cardiovascular disease and other conditions. And the use of genetic testing to evaluate drug tolerance— a specialty known as pharmacogenetics— can warn patients of risks with many everyday medications, such as statins to lower cholesterol and blood thinners.

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