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Voluntary genetic testing may help some wellness efforts

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Incorporating voluntary genetic testing into workplace wellness programming could help substantially lower employers' total health care costs, according to a new study by Aetna Inc. and Toronto-based health management firm Newtopia Inc.

A year-long study of 445 Aetna employees participating in a pilot wellness program designed specifically for individuals with an increased risk for metabolic syndrome conducted from July 2013 through June 2014 showed that average annual health care costs were reduced by $1,464 per employee compared with a nonparticipating control group, according to a summary report of the study's findings released on Monday.

Additionally, 76% of participating employees who volunteered for the pilot program reported an average weight loss of 10 pounds at the end of the trial period, and more than 50% of those enrolled remained engaged in the program for its entire 12-month span, compared with an industry average engagement rate of 15%, according to the study results.

“By achieving significant costs savings in the very first year, we have shown an unequivocal return on investment long before the industry standard of three to five years,” Jeff Ruby, founder and CEO of Newtopia, said in a statement accompanying the report.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health conditions including high blood pressure, excess body mass and high cholesterol, and is a common predictor of diabetes, heart and liver disease and other costly chronic disorders.

Under the program — which was launched for commercial use earlier this year — employees enrolled in the program voluntarily submitted a saliva sample that was tested for three genes associated with obesity, appetite and compulsive behavior. The genetic test results were compared with self-reported personality, lifestyle and motivational assessments to identify wellness programs and activities most likely to resonate with them. Newtopia health management coaches, personalized emails, texts and printed materials communicate the results and recommendations to employees on an individual basis.

The report concluded that wellness programs tailored more closely to employees' individual lifestyles and clinical health indicators are likely to be more effective in cost reduction and health improvement than broader, population-based programs.

Program costs were negotiated on a per-participant basis, as opposed to an overall population basis, the report noted.

Aetna and Newtopia began marketing the program in February to motivate at-risk employees to be more active in managing their health.