Q&A: How can pharmacogenomics help your employees?

Allison Hazell, Clinical Director, Genetics, answers our questions

We interviewed Allison Hazell, Clinical Director, Genetics at Medcan to share with employers what they should know about pharmacogenomics.

1. What is pharmacogenomics?

Pharmacogenomics combines the field of pharmaceuticals with genomics, or the field of genetic testing.

To put it simply, pharmacogenomics is a category of genetic testing that can help doctors better understand how a specific patient will respond to a given medication.

As everyone metabolizes drugs differently, these simple genetic tests could help avoid both adverse side-effects and cases where a drug is less effective for specific individuals.

An individual’s varying responses to drugs can be due to differences in height, weight, gender, age, and even diet. But a lot of the variation in how a person responds to medication can be directly tied back to a genetic difference in that individual. Pharmacogenomics could help reduce a lot of the trial and error out there.

2. What is the benefit of pharmacogenomics testing to Canadians?

Further to what I just described, it could really help individuals to better understand what medications might be suitable for them from the beginning, rather than doing a trial and error cycle until they get on the right medication.

With things like depression medication, the average number of drugs a person tries before they find one that actually works for them is usually four. The lengthened time to reach the best health outcome is quite significant.

Pharmacogenomics can help people identify what side-effect risks they may be facing and whether or not a drug would be effective for them, so that they can choose a medication that may be better suited to treat their symptoms.

3. How effective is pharmacogenomics in reducing trial and error?

It depends on the medication. It’s an area of medicine that’s still evolving in terms of the knowledge.

Some medications have very clear outlined pharmacogenetic pathways—to the point where the FDA will put a label warning on that drug to say individuals should consider genetic testing prior to dosing, because the evidence is so strong that if you have a genetic change it will cause a side effect or reduce effectiveness. The test that we provide to our clients has 320 medications listed across multiple disease states or treatment areas.

One study in particular, done at the University of Utah, saw a 40 per cent reduction in hospitalizations, and a 71 per cent reduction in emergency department visits.

Another from the University of Illinois Hospital had a 77 per cent reduction in 30-day hospital readmission rates after pharmacogenomics testing for Warfarin and Clopidogrel. The readmission savings here were $2,044 per patient at the hospital—not accounting for potential savings for drug plans and corporations dealing with absenteeism.

4. How can this type of testing help employers alleviate increasing drug plan costs?

There are a few different ways. One is by improving employee health overall by getting them the right medication sooner. With the right medication, their symptoms are better treated and they’re more productive at work, and back at work faster if they’ve been on short term or long term disability.

The other way is, by reducing the amount of different drugs a person tries in trial and error. Getting someone on the right drug sooner may in fact reduce the spend over time.

Pharmacogenomics could prove beneficial for both patients and drug plan sponsors. Patients will receive the optimal medication sooner, and if even it’s the more expensive option, sponsors will still save money by avoiding the often costly trial and error process.

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