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In an effort to advance genetic medicine, the Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a project that links a patient’s genetic information with the medical history stored in his or her electronic health record, according to Government Health IT news.

The goal is to uncover how and what genetic variations can make people more susceptible to various diseases. It could also uncover how genes and the environment interact. People with certain genetic variants, for example, are already known to be more susceptible to depression, but only if exposed to emotional trauma.

The project is feasible because the Department of Veterans Affairs has had an electronic health record system in place for years. These records can be accessed across the country, and the quality of the information they store is well-regarded.

In July, the VA undersecretary of health told legislators that the project could specifically help veterans by uncovering those susceptible to PTSD or certain kinds of chemical attacks.

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Veterans’ genetic information will only be stored if they consent. The VA rolled out a pilot project late last year and now plans to expand it. The VA is capable of banking samples from 100,000 patients and has already collected specimens from 30,000. But how quickly it will expand the project is unclear.

The American Health Information Community, a group of government and business leaders established by President George Bush and chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, has hosted discussions on the need for policies that govern how genetic information should be stored in patients’ electronic health records but has not yet drafted any firm policies.

Several privacy advocates and bioethicists maintain that legislation will be necessary to restrict unethical uses of patients’ genetic information. Last fall, the Department of Health and Human Services requested information from the private and public sectors on how health care IT can advance the use of genomic testing information to improve and personalize health care.

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