The Benefits and Limitations of Genetic Testing

For some individuals, genetic testing can be a life-saving measure. It can uncover a disease or a tendency to develop certain conditions, and may lead to close family members being tested as well. The obvious benefit of genetic testing is the ability to better understand the risk of developing a certain disease, such as cancer. Tests aren't perfect, but they can often help you make decisions about your health.

Direct-to-consumer genetic testing promotes knowledge of genetic diseases and can be used to learn about your risk of developing cancer and to determine if family members might be at risk. Before undergoing any genetic testing, it is important to understand its potential benefits, harms, and limitations. Privacy can become an issue when many family members can be affected by a single positive genetic test result. Employers are not allowed to require genetic testing and cannot collect genetic information, with very few exceptions.

If genetic testing indicates that you have a higher risk of developing a condition later in life (such as breast cancer), you may be able to have more regular checkups or take other steps to minimize the risk. The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) is a federal law that prohibits the use of genetic information in the employment decisions of non-governmental organizations with more than 15 employees. GINA also prohibits health insurers (including group health plans, individual plans, and Medicare supplement plans) from turning people away or charging higher premiums for health insurance based on genetic information or for the use of genetic services. If you know that you and your partner are at high risk of having a child with a genetic condition, it is possible to test the fetus during pregnancy to see if it is affected.

Employers can request genetic testing if it is used to control exposure to chemicals and potentially toxic substances in the workplace. Researchers are always learning more about genetic test results and what they may mean, but right now there are still a lot of unanswered questions. It's usually less expensive than genetic testing done through a healthcare provider, which can make testing more accessible to people without health insurance or with limited health insurance. Lists of recommendations are available for adult patients who are making intelligent decisions about genetic testing.

And as knowledge about genetic mutations has grown, testing mechanisms have become faster, cheaper and more accurate. Sometimes family secrets, such as parenting, adoptions, or other difficult issues, can be discovered because of the result of genetic testing. Even if genetic testing is covered by insurance, you can decide not to ask your insurance company to help you pay for the tests.