American College of Physicians publishes ethics manual: 5 notes on genetic testing

Physicians may increasingly be called upon to help counsel patients interested in genetic testing — a complicated task that requires educating patients about the risks of genetic tests and helping them interpret their results, according to the most recent edition of the American College of Physicians' ethics manual.

The American College of Physicians published the seventh edition of its ethics manual in the Annals of Internal Medicine Jan. 15. The document covers various issues in medical ethics, including confidentiality, informed consent, gifts from patients, social media use and physician-assisted suicide.

"Reexamining the ethical tenets of medicine and their application in new circumstances is a necessary exercise," the manual reads. "The manual is not a substitute for the experience and integrity of individual physicians, but it may serve as a reminder of the shared duties of the medical profession."

Five notes on genetic testing, as outlined in the American College of Physicians' recently updated ethics manual:

1. Due to a shortage of qualified clinical geneticists and genetic counselors, it's likely that clinicians will be called upon to counsel patients before genetic testing and to help them interpret their results. However, if a clinician is not qualified for these tasks, they should still refer the patient to a specialist.

2. Before undergoing a genetic test, patients should understand the benefits, risks, limitations and possible consequences. For example, a genetic test might detect susceptibility to a disease that the physician is unable to prevent or treat.

3. Physicians should consider the following test characteristics before offering a genetic test to a patient: analytical validity, clinical validity, clinical utility and personal utility.

4. The primary obligation of a physician is to "promote the best interests of the patient." However, physicians should also encourage a patient to contact family members at risk for hereditary conditions detected during genetic testing.

5. Physicians should be aware of the need for confidentiality when dealing with genetic data. Physicians should help patients understand concerns related to genetic privacy, such as whether there is a potential for employers, insurers or law enforcement to access results.

To access the newest American College of Physicians' ethics manual, click here.

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