Secrets Revealed: The Pros And Cons Of Genetic Tests

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Man swabbing the inside of his mouth with a home DNA testing kit

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Genetic testing at home can be a lot of fun — finding out your heritage, where your family once lived, and maybe even a few surprises along the way! Genetic tests have become almost a household word in the past few years — telling you about your ancestry, family stories, and even some health risks. But there are times when at-home testing — instead of medical testing from a professional health care provider —may not be your best choice.

“There are big differences between at-home genetic testing and the genetic testing that is done for medical reasons,” explains Julie Sawyer, MS, LGC, Premier Health genetic counselor. “Even at-home tests that screen for some genetic traits and inherited diseases are still only covering a part of the question. At-home genetic testing is not the same testing as medical genetic testing. It’s not as comprehensive or precise.”

For some at-home genetic tests, especially the most affordable ones, you don’t need an order from a physician. Everyone gets the same test and a standardized report of the results. You decide how you want to act on those results. If the test says that you’re more likely to have a health concern like high cholesterol or gluten intolerance, you can choose to make changes to better your health in those areas. 

“On the other hand, a medical genetic test is ordered by your health care provider and is intended to address specific risks and concerns based on your personal or family medical history,” says Amanda Musser, MSN, RN, director of nursing at Miami Valley Hospital South. Like at-home genetic testing, it is intended to provide information — in this case, information for you about your particular risks, for your doctors to know how best to take care of you, and for your family members to know who among them may also share the same inherited risks.

Interpreting Results 

It’s important to know how to interpret the results you get.

At-home genetic testing companies can vary in how much they explain your results. “No matter how much we read about it, there’s always a chance that we might not understand this complex information fully. In some cases, people tend to overestimate their likelihood of developing a particular disease after having at-home genetic testing, while others will interpret a ‘normal’ result as indicating that they don’t have any chance at all of developing a particular disease,” Sawyer says. “On the other hand, medical genetic tests are personally explained by professionals who understand these advanced tests and can help you understand what the results mean to you.”

For people who want to know more about themselves and their genetic health risks, at-home genetic testing can help focus on the areas and risks you can change. “However, when a significant medical problem is at stake, it’s important to be sure that you get accurate information that addresses fully your particular concerns presented in a clear and concise way,” Musser explains.

Medical genetic testing is used to focus on the concerns that affect you most — perhaps you only need to have genetic testing for a specific type of cancer, or a specific gene mutation, even. Maybe the best way to look at a family with a history of cancer is to test your aunt who had cancer years ago. “The medical genetics specialist can help determine what test is going to meet your needs — and help you understand the results,” Musser says.

Be Aware Of Privacy Issues 

“We also need to keep in mind that the information we’re getting from our testing is received in exchange for a sample of our most personal information — our DNA blueprint. With at-home genetic testing, privacy is not guaranteed,” Sawyer says. In some cases, it can be released to law enforcement or even sold to other companies. That can have unexpected effects, including, in some cases, the ability to get or afford insurance.

Medical genetic testing falls under the same sorts of protections that other medical information does — medical information privacy laws such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and genetic privacy laws like GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act). Under these laws, there are controls and limits on how this information can be shared. “Be sure to know how your privacy is being protected before having any type of genetic test,” Sawyer advises. 

In the end, choose the type of testing that fits your needs the best. If you want to know more about your family ancestry and where your relatives came from, or about your genetic health and the areas you want to focus on for health improvement, then at-home genetic testing could be right for you.

On the other hand, if you or your family have a specific health concern that may need medical guidance, increased testing or treatment, be sure that you seek the expertise of medical professionals. Together, you can get the information you need to take the best care of your health. Take some time and think things through, and be sure that you choose the right type of genetic test for you.    


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Amanda Musser, MSN, RN