Telehealth Genetic Counseling Offers Support During Uncertainty

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Telehealth genetic counseling helps patients make decisions about their genes.

Information is power. Advances in our understanding of the underlying genetics that define our physical state have given us access to more information about our potential future than any previous generation. With that information comes the power to act in anticipation of illness. Coping with the realities of that power, however, is not an easy feat.

The decisions that must be made in light of our family history and biological inheritance can stir up fears that have no immediate grounding in our day-to-day lives. It can be like being told you are sick even though you have no symptoms.

There’s now an entire field of medicine dedicated to helping us deal with the unanticipated questions that arise from genetic diagnoses. It’s called genetic counseling, and it is all about communication and comprehension.

In the digital communication age, that field can be expanded to include telehealth genetic counseling. It lets the patient and his or her family seek support in a time of uncertainty without the travel required for in-person counseling.

Reading the Warnings in Our Genes

It is estimated there are more than 10,000 human diseases known to be caused by a single error in a single gene in our genetic makeup–and that number doesn’t include the many cases in which the risk of a disease is increased when a gene or combination of genes is inherited. Many common hereditary diseases are serious, even deadly, conditions. They include cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and some forms of cancer. 

The consequences of a potential diagnosis bring up profound considerations for patients.

Genetic counselors are able to use information gathered from a physical examination and a study of the family history to evaluate the potential for a patient to develop or pass on such conditions. It is a remarkable medical tool, but the consequences of a potential diagnosis bring up profound considerations for patients. People can be left to contemplate aggressive preventative actions, such as a mastectomy, or make great sacrifices in their lives, such as foregoing having children.

The role of genetic counseling is to help patients understand the ramifications of genetic testing and to guide them through the potentially life-altering decisions ahead of them. Embracing modern digital communications such as video conferencing is one way to ease the burden of that process.

Telehealth Genetic Counseling Offers Intimacy Online

Telehealth is not intended to replace an in-person medical consultation. It is designed to extend the reach of therapeutic medicine and to expand the ways that patients receive treatment.

Telehealth programs already exist that bring expert medical services to rural and remote areas of the country that would otherwise not have ready access to care. In other instances, such as in the case of palliative telemedicine, telehealth technology is being used to improve patient comfort and privacy by allowing people to access support without having to leave their homes.

Telehealth genetic counseling can succeed because the emphasis is on verbal communication and not on physical examination.

In many instances, these remote therapies have proven to be as good as in-person interventions. Therapy over video conference, for example, has been widely used to help people deal with grief, stress, addiction, and the effects of long-term illness and injury.

Telehealth genetic counseling can succeed along those same lines because the emphasis is on verbal communication and not on physical examination. In fact, the availability of a private, familiar environment where a patient can meet a medical specialist has the potential to make patients more comfortable and relaxed during some very difficult discussions. It also allows the patient to seek assistance at a time and place when they can be joined by their family.

Improving patient access to information is the best way to empower their decision making–and that’s what remote genetic counseling does.

Empowering Patients Through the Flexibility of Telehealth

The demand for genetic testing is growing. In light of this growth, the American College of Surgeons requires that cancer treatment centers provide access to qualified genetics counselors before they can receive accreditation. This stipulation, and the spread of messaging about early diagnosis and treatment of illness, will likely result in a dramatic increase in demand for counseling services.

Offering a remote platform can expand the area a counseling program can serve to more than 200 miles.

Telehealth genetic counseling can help meet that need. Recent studies have shown that offering a remote platform can expand the area a counseling program can serve to more than 200 miles. With such a radius, dedicated hubs of counseling professionals could potentially offer support to an entire state population without their patients ever having to leave home. Such professionals could also scale up the number of patients they see by eliminating the need to travel or adhere to traditional business hours.

The technology needed to make these remote connections possible is affordable and accessible–an affordable HD webcam and a solid home internet connection is all that is required on either end of the virtual conversation. With adherence to the strict HIPAA guidelines that protect patient data now common among video conferencing platforms, there’s also little risk involved.

Telehealth genetic counseling is not a service you ever wish to require. If, however, you are faced with the double-edged sword of this early warning system, it is comforting to know that you can control the how’s, where’s, and when’s of the decision-making process.

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