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Family Genetics: Four Actions Patients Can Take During the COVID-19 Pandemic

One of the many things we’re learning as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic is that we still have a lot to learn. As healthcare providers, we’re dealing with various questions from patients daily. Patients with certain diagnosed genetic diseases may have higher risk for COVID-19 complications. Some patients are concerned about underlying health conditions and wondering how those conditions might influence the course of disease if they get sick. Some may even wonder about their family history, knowing their health can be influenced by genetics. Even more, patients may be asking, “Is there anything in my family’s history that may help predict what will happen if I get the virus?”

The short answer—like many answers for questions about COVID-19—is that we don’t know how our genetic health information fits into the puzzle. Studies are underway that are trying to determine the impact of genetic variation on patient response to the virus. We may discover that specific genes play a role in determining individual response to the virus. While we wait for these critical studies to produce results, we can begin to help our patients understand the importance of family history.

We know that family history is a significant predictor of some common health issues, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, etc. However, patients may not know what family history information is helpful or how it could impact their health management planning, let alone what specific facts are important. The coronavirus pandemic might give patients the time, tools and interest to learn and do more for their overall health.

As healthcare providers, how can you help your patients prioritize their health management now and into the future? Below are four tips to share with your patients that will help them do just that.

1: Use family time to explore health history. As patients are having more purposeful and planned interactions with family through Zoom, electronic check-ins, and online celebrations, your patients can take this time to ask about aunts and uncles, grandparents, and other relatives as they explore their own health risks. Provide your patients with a family history questionnaire to help facilitate these questions. Often the EMRs we use in our practices are a good place to find those. You can also leverage the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) and the CDC for patient-friendly resources.

Three generations of men together2: Family history is empowering, not overwhelming. While family history can help patients understand health risks, it’s also important to reassure them that they have some power to influence their outcomes. When thinking about COVID-19, we’re not necessarily at a higher risk of complications just because we have a family history of high blood pressure or diabetes. It can be easy to feel like there is nothing we can do to change our legacy, but we can help address and change that mindset.

3: Time for some lifestyle changes. You know that small things like going outside for a daily walk can make an impact and result in sustainable change even after this current health crisis. Encourage your patients to be more mindful when it comes to their food choices and physical activities.

4: Look to the future. Right now, patients and providers are using healthcare services differently, canceling elective procedures, and perhaps limiting office visits for less urgent needs. Hopefully, soon most people will be back to doing those annual check-ups and recommended screenings, but they are important even in the absence of other risk factors or family history. So, encourage your patients to make those appointments.  Send EMR reminders again. Have office staff make friendly calls to schedule those canceled physicals. Remind patients to bring their family history information for discussion during their next visit.

This is a very different time for all of us who work in the healthcare industry. Regardless of whether you’re on the front lines treating patients with COVID-19 or not, you can still make a difference. Delving into family history can uncover clues about inherited genetic conditions that may be unknowingly putting patients at risk. If you’re finding you need the support of genetics experts, InformedDNA can help you and your patients understand how and which genetic testing might be important to their overall health management.

At InformedDNA, we leverage the expertise of the most experienced full-time staff of lab-independent, board-certified genetics specialists in the U.S. to help ensure that patientshealth planshealth systems and hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers have access to the highest quality genetics services.

Questions about genetic testing or genetic counseling? Just submit the short form below and we’ll get back with you right away. Or, give us a call at 844-846-3763.