The trillions of bacteria and other microbes that live in the healthy human gut, vagina, and other parts of the body play a crucial role in our well-being — influencing everything from acne to obesity to mental health. To understand the role of this complex community, collectively known as the microbiome, biotech companies have started offering a range of test services. And now, San Francisco-based microbiome testing company uBiome has announced plans to launch a program to train health professionals as the first “microbiome counselors.”
Part technical translators and part educators, these counselors will help individuals interpret their microbiome data, according to the company. Although some counselors may be physicians, their main goal will not be to provide medical advice. Instead, they will serve as a resource for patients on “diet, lifestyle, and treatment adherence to improve their health in the context of the microbiome.”
Jessica Richman, uBiome’s co-founder and CEO, says they’ve recognized the need for counselors since their first clinical microbiome test, SmartGut, became available in 2016*. She says that doctors can go to the scientific literature to stay abreast of the latest research. But there’s been nothing available to help them answer the question: “How do I use this to help patients now?”
There’s plenty of emerging evidence that the microbiome has implications for understanding a wide range of conditions, from basic gut health to the obesity epidemic, as well as depression and anxiety. Nevertheless, not everyone agrees that the science has reached a point where microbiome counseling in the clinic makes any sense.
“In my opinion, the research is not advanced enough to begin counseling individuals using microbiome data,” says Daniel McDonald, scientific director for the American Gut Project, which is based out of the University of California, San Diego. “And beyond the data,” he says, “a remote counselor is not a replacement for professional medical diagnosis and advice.”
While uBiome’s free counseling program is expected to begin this spring as a series of weekly online webinars, it isn’t certified to provide health professionals with continuing education credits nor is it accredited by any third party. But company representatives say they envision it growing into a more extensive program, with microbiome counselors eventually serving in a role akin to genetic counselors.
“Genetic counselors exist because there’s a lot of complex information around genetics,” Richman says. “It’s hard for a lay person to understand.” There’s a need for professionals to guide patients in understanding genetics in a way that doctors aren’t generally trained to do, she says. The same can be said of the microbiome.
However, that’s where the parallels between genetic counseling and microbiome counseling end. uBiome’s fledgling program won’t be in any way comparable to a genetic counseling training program, which requires a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling.
“This is a short course,” Richman says. “It’s online. We’re not pretending it’s the same as a genetic counselor, which involves in-depth training. It’s not that, but it’s a start to being able to provide this kind of education. We want to get information that’s beneficial out to healthcare providers and patients.”
The course is targeted to doctors and other health professionals who are already licensed and experienced in working with patients, Richman says. Health professionals working in integrative medicine, as well as naturopaths and other licensed professionals can apply too, although it’s unclear whether uBiome will verify these professional licenses.
Richman says that the program is simply one more way to begin answering questions they hear often. “We’ve had so many doctors ask: ‘What do I do?’” she says. “‘Give me more information.’ This is one of our answers.”
*Editor’s Note (2/26/18): This sentence has been updated to reflect the correct launch date of uBiome’s first clinical microbiome test, SmartGut. The original erroneously stated that SmartGut became available in 2017.