Does DNA testing for serious illness actually help your health, or is it potentially damaging?
Genetic testing to discover increased probability of certain serious illnesses, such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, has been available privately for some time.
The UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock is now suggesting that DNA testing should be available as a ‘paid-for’ service on the NHS, according to an article in the New Scientist. The data accrued, says the Department of Health, will also be used to create a nationwide research database that could benefit everyone.
Genetic testing of this sort is not always beneficial, though. An inquiry into its benefits and risks by the UK Science and Technology Select Committee says that while there are some potential health benefits – such as being more likely to detect cancers in their early stages – many serious genetically predisposed illnesses are incurable and cannot be affected by lifestyle or early diagnosis.
There is also a concern that stress and anxiety from the results could have a negative effect on mental health, and overall physical health and resilience. One specialist at University College London says that a psychological assessment should be part of the DNA testing to ensure patients are mentally prepared for their results.
Critics have said that Hancock’s plan risks overburdening the NHS, as people who discover they have a high genetic probability for an illness are likely to increase the number of visits to their doctor. The Association of Genetic Nurses and Counsellors claims that many patients who currently use private DNA testing firms then approach the NHS to monitor their conditions or resolve their worries.
The Biochemical Society has recommended that test results are only released through a registered clinical geneticist, and that laws need to be introduced to prevent data being passed to insurance companies who could use the information to determine premiums.
Like all major medical advances, genetic testing clearly needs to be carefully planned for and regulated before it is widely implemented.