A new study published in the Journal of JAMA Internal Medicine reported that return of carrier results from exome sequencing by a web-based platform may be an acceptable, cost-effective alternative to a genetic counselor.

A critical bottleneck in clinical genomics is the mismatch between large volumes of results and the availability of knowledgeable professionals to return them. The study objective was to test whether a web-based platform is noninferior to a genetic counselor for educating patients about their carrier results from exome sequencing.

A randomized noninferiority trial conducted in a longitudinal sequencing cohort was used to compare the web-based platform with a genetic counselor. Among the 571 eligible participants, 1 to 7 heterozygous variants were identified in genes that cause a phenotype that is recessively inherited.

Surveys were administered after cohort enrollment, immediately following trial education, and 1 month and 6 months later to primarily healthy postreproductive participants who expressed interest in learning their carrier results. Both intention-to-treat and per-protocol analyses were applied.

A web-based platform that integrated education on carrier results with personal test results was designed to directly parallel disclosure education by a genetic counselor. The sessions took a mean (SD) time of 21, and 27 minutes, respectively. The primary outcomes and noninferiority margins (δNI) were knowledge, test-specific distress and decisional conflict.

After 462 participants (80.9%) provided consent and were randomized, all but 3 participants (n = 459) completed surveys following education and counseling; 398 (86.1%) completed 1-month surveys and 392 (84.8%) completed 6-month surveys. Participants were predominantly well-educated, non-Hispanic white, married parents; mean (SD) age was 63 (63.1) years and 246 (53.6%) were men.

The web platform was noninferior to the genetic counselor on outcomes assessed at 1 and 6 months: knowledge (mean group difference, −0.18; lower limit of 97.5% CI, −0.63; δNI = −1), test-specific distress (median group difference, 0; upper limit of 97.5% CI, 0; δNI = +1), and decisional conflict about choosing to learn results (mean group difference, 1.18; upper limit of 97.5% CI, 2.66; δNI = +6).

There were no significant differences between the genetic counselors and web-based platform detected between modes of education delivery in disclosure rates to spouses (151 vs 159; relative risk [RR], 1.04; 95% CI, 0.64-1.69; P > .99), children (103 vs 117; RR, 1.07; 95% CI, 0.85-1.36; P = .59), or siblings (91 vs 78; RR, 1.17; 95% CI, 0.94-1.46; P = .18).

The present trial demonstrates noninferiority of web-based return of carrier results among postreproductive, mostly healthy adults. Replication studies among younger and more diverse populations are needed to establish generalizability. Yet return of results via a web-based platform may be sufficient for subsets of test results, reserving genetic counselors for return of results with a greater health threat.