Teens’ Nuanced Views about Genetic Testing, at ESHG 2017

Posted by: Michael Dougherty, PhD, ASHG Director of Education

What do adolescents think about genetic testing – in particular, clinical recommendations to defer genetic testing for adult-onset conditions? We are beginning to have an answer, thanks to a research collaboration involving ASHG, Geisinger, and Sarah Lawrence College. Late last month, I had the opportunity to present our initial analysis at the 2017 European Human Genetics Conference (ESHG 2017) in Denmark.

20170613_ESHG-copenhagen
Nyhavn waterfront, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Credit: Michael Dougherty)

First, for those who haven’t been to Copenhagen, it’s a beautiful city that I highly recommend. Deep history, friendly people (almost all of whom speak excellent English), and the convenient mass transit that is so typical of Europe. Walk along the canals or climb the external staircase to the top of Vor Frelser’s Kirke (Our Savior’s Church). An hour north of Copenhagen, Kronborg Castle, which is the model for Shakespeare’s Elsinore in Hamlet, is an especially nice day trip. If you’re adventurous, try the Danish national meal, ‘stegt flæsk,’ a delicious crispy pork dish, which came with the following warning in our restaurant’s menu: “Ask your waiter before ordering”! But now, back to the research.

Little is known about how adolescents view genetic testing, especially the psychosocial impacts of the benefits and harms frequently discussed by experts, yet clinical practice often involves decisions that may affect them. Our research used data from ASHG’s annual DNA Day Essay Contest entries to characterize adolescents’ views.

ASHG’s 2016 DNA Day Essay Contest question asked high school students to identify an adult-onset genetic condition and to defend or refute the recommendation in ASHG’s 2015 position statement to defer genetic testing until adulthood. Over 1,200 essays from 45 U.S. states and 22 non-U.S. countries were assessed using thematic, mixed-methods analysis. Students identified 100 conditions, but 75% chose one of five more familiar disorders, including Huntington disease, hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (e.g., BRCA), and Alzheimer’s. Across all conditions, roughly equal numbers of students chose to defer testing as to not defer.

We then dug deeper to examine students’ choices regarding specific conditions, such as testing for a BRCA predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA) and for Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which differ considerably in medical actionability. Here some statistically significant differences began to emerge. With AD, nearly two-thirds of students chose to defer testing, whereas with BRCA, fewer than half chose to defer.

The reasons students gave to justify their decisions were sophisticated and often matched those reflected in clinical guidelines and ethical discussions. Reasons to defer often included risk of psychological harm to the minor or the uncertainty of predictions arising from test results (e.g., ApoE4). Reasons not to defer included the benefits of alleviating uncertainty and preparing for increased surveillance (e.g., early, regular mammograms).

The rich data provided in the students’ essays will be mined for additional insights that may inform the development of future recommendations, but even now it appears clear that the decisions of mature adolescents should be taken seriously by clinicians.

Michael J. Dougherty, PhD, is Director of Education at ASHG. This research collaboration’s work was presented at ESHG 2017 as a poster and featured in the meeting’s Best Posters Session.

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