Public Attitudes Toward Genetic Risk Testing and Its Role in Healthcare

Holly Etchegary


Personalized Medicine. 2014;11(5):509-522. 

In This Article

Public Knowledge About Genetics

The general public displays a fairly high awareness of genetics, even if they lack a clear understanding of the technical language used by genetic healthcare professionals or the probabilities used to stratify individuals into genetic risk categories.[5,6,19,20] For example, most people are familiar with core concepts in genetics such as genes and DNA, and they understand that hereditary material is passed from parents to children.[19,20] The public also seems to understand that human disease is not solely caused by genes, but is influenced by environmental and other causes.[21] A meta-analysis of research on genetic knowledge[19] concluded that 'the general public is reasonably aware of the genetic risk factors of multifactorial diseases'. However, the public does not display a clear understanding of the concept of gene–environment interaction,[5,21] nor how genetic risk factors affect the development of disease in relation to other risk factors.[4,19]

The relationship between knowledge about, and attitude toward, genetics is more complex than some models might suggest. A simplistic 'deficit model' suggests that less knowledge about science will lead to less positive attitudes about scientific technologies.[22] Thus, if the public could be better educated about science (e.g., genetics), they would have more favorable responses to scientific technologies (e.g., genomic developments). Studies have shown that greater knowledge about genetics is associated with greater acceptance of genetic testing [e.g.,[23]]. However, the relationship between knowledge and attitude appears more than linear. For example, an early study found that, in some cases, more knowledge produced more criticism about genetics.[24] Later research concurred, suggesting that a well-informed public may in fact be more discriminating and display a critical attitude toward specific issues within science, particularly those of a socially or morally sensitive nature, which are often highlighted in genetics.[6,25,26] Thus, while education continues to be included as a demographic variable in public attitudinal research, current research suggests its effect is small and inconsistent.[5] Condit has argued that 'people bring to bear their social experiences in forming their beliefs as much as they utilize any technical knowledge. These beliefs form only one component of attitudinal and behavioral responses to genetics'.[5]