Employees Jump at Genetic Testing. Is That a Good Thing?
Levi Strauss & Company introduced a novel benefit for employees at its San Francisco headquarters last fall: free genetic screening to assess their hereditary risks for certain cancers and high cholesterol.
Chip Bergh, Levi’s chief executive, said he had hoped that the tests would spur employees to take preventive health steps and in that way reduce the company’s health care costs. But even Mr. Bergh was surprised by the turnout. Of the 1,100 eligible Levi’s employees, more than half took the genetic tests. Now, he wants to extend the benefit to employees in other cities.
“It really is a differentiator,” Mr. Bergh said.
West Coast companies vying for talent offer an unusual array of benefits like college loan repayment, egg freezing, surrogacy assistance and, for new mothers away on business trips, overnight breast milk shipping. Some companies have added genetic screening as well, and employees are lining up for the tests.
Instacart, Nvidia, OpenTable, Salesforce, SAP, Slack, Stripe and Snap have offered the screenings as an employee benefit. So have some companies based on the East Coast, like General Electric Appliances and Visa. All of them, including Levi’s, work with Color Genomics, a start-up that has quickly become a leader in employee genetic screening and counseling.
But the use of screenings as an employee benefit is becoming more commonplace just as federal health agencies, researchers, and physicians are wrangling over whether the tests, originally developed to establish patients’ inherited risks of developing certain diseases, are ready for widespread adoption.
The tests screen for inherited gene mutations that can greatly increase a person’s risk of developing diseases like colon cancer or breast cancer. Doctors now regularly suggest them for high-risk patients, such as people who have close family members with certain cancers.
But for people of average risk in the general public, a screening may not be all that useful — and could even cause harm, experts said. A person without a family history of cancer may have the same problematic mutations as high-risk patients, they said, but could have lower risk of developing cancer.