The recent introduction of cell-free DNA-based non-invasive prenatal screening (cfDNA screening) into clinical practice was expected to revolutionize prenatal testing. cfDNA screening for fetal aneuploidy has demonstrated higher test sensitivity and specificity for some conditions than conventional serum screening and can be conducted early in the pregnancy. However, it is not clear whether and how clinical practices are assimilating this new type of testing into their informed consent and counselling processes. Since the introduction of cfDNA screening into practice in 2011, the uptake and scope have increased dramatically. Prenatal care providers are under pressure to stay up to date with rapidly changing cfDNA screening panels, manage increasing patient demands, and keep up with changing test costs, all while attempting to use the technology responsibly and ethically. While clinical literature on cfDNA screening has shown benefits for specific patient populations, it has also identified significant misunderstandings among providers and patients alike about the power of the technology. The unique features of cfDNA screening, in comparison to established prenatal testing technologies, have implications for informed decision-making and genetic counselling that must be addressed to ensure ethical practice.
This study explored the experiences of prenatal care providers at the forefront of non-invasive genetic screening in the United States to understand how this testing changes the practice of prenatal medicine. We aimed to learn how the experience of providing and offering this testing differs from established prenatal testing methodologies. These differences may necessitate changes to patient education and consent procedures to maintain ethical practice.
We used the online American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Physician Directory to identify a systematic sample of five prenatal care providers in each U.S. state and the District of Columbia. Beginning with the lowest zip code in each state, we took every fifth name from the directory, excluding providers who were retired, did not currently practice in the state in which they were listed, or were not involved in a prenatal specialty. After repeating this step twice and sending a total of 461 invitations, 37 providers expressed interest in participating, and we completed telephone interviews with 21 providers (4.6%). We developed a semi-structured interview guide including questions about providers' use of and attitudes toward cfDNA screening. A single interviewer conducted and audio-recorded all interviews by telephone, and the interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes each. We collaboratively developed a codebook through an iterative process of transcript review and code application, and a primary coder coded all transcripts.
Prenatal care providers have varying perspectives on the advantages of cfDNA screening and express a range of concerns regarding the implementation of cfDNA screening in practice. While providers agreed on several advantages of cfDNA, including increased accuracy, earlier return of results, and decreased risk of complications, many expressed concern that there is not enough time to adequately counsel and educate patients on their prenatal screening and testing options. Providers also agreed that demand for cfDNA screening has increased and expressed a desire for more information from professional societies, labs, and publications. Providers disagreed about the healthcare implications and future of cfDNA screening. Some providers anticipated that cfDNA screening would decrease healthcare costs when implemented widely and expressed optimism for expanded cfDNA screening panels. Others were concerned that cfDNA screening would increase costs over time and questioned whether the expansion to include microdeletions could be done ethically.
The perspectives and experiences of the providers in this study allow insight into the clinical benefit, burden on prenatal practice, and potential future of cfDNA screening in clinical practice. Given the likelihood that the scope and uptake of cfDNA screening will continue to increase, it is essential to consider how these changes will affect frontline prenatal care providers and, in turn, patients. Providers' requests for additional guidance and data as well as their concerns with the lack of time available to explain screening and testing options indicate significant potential issues with patient care. It is important to ensure that the clinical integration of cfDNA screening is managed responsibly and ethically before it expands further, exacerbating pre-existing issues. As prenatal screening evolves, so should informed consent and the resources available to women making decisions. The field must take steps to maximize the advantages of cfDNA screening and responsibly manage its ethical issues.