Genetic screening for workers: A panacea or a pandora's box?

Posted: January 30, 2015 at 9:48 pm

To retain and attract top talent, a quarter of UK businesses would extend health screening into genetic testing but fear of legal repercussions is an inhibiting factor for 76% of employers

With the price of full DNA testing plummeting, and in anticipation of personalised medicines fine-tuned to a patient's genetic make-up, one in four (24%) UK businesses say that they are likely to extend health screening into genetic testing as they strive to retain and attract top talent, a new survey has found.

UK businesses could soon offer employees a complete readout of their genetic blueprint, and hence unprecedented insight into their current and future health, but, amidst all the excitement, Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, Vice President of the Patients Association and former Chair of the Human Genetics Committee, urges businesses to consider the wider implications, suggesting that genetic screening of employees may be more of a Pandoras box than a panacea.

More than 600 UK business leaders were questioned for the Astellas Innovation DebateTM 2015, which on Thursday 29th January brings together a panel of world-renowned experts at The Royal Institution of Great Britain to discuss the implications of the revolutions in DNA and data for our health.1

Currently, one in four (24%) business leaders say they would offer full genetic screening to their employees though this rises to nearly a third (29%) in the IT and banking sectors, where talent often seems in short supply. But most employers (76%) the fear of legal repercussions is an inhibiting factor.

Of employers who said that their business would be unlikely to offer genetic screening to employees, 43% said they might reconsider their view in the future if better legislation were introduced to protect the rights of employers (19%) and employees (24%). 16% said they would re-consider their view if the results of genetic testing could serve to reduce the cost of key person insurance, while a further 16% said that businesses would need access to advice on dealing with employees found to be at higher genetic risk of developing serious illness. Only 5% said they might choose to offer genetic screening if their business could access genetic data from test results.

European legislation prohibits businesses from gaining access to their employees genetic data, and most businesses (72%) support this principle. Despite that, one in five bosses (22%) admitted that an employee who revealed his/her greater genetic risk of serious illness would consequently also run a greater risk of redundancy and become less eligible for promotion.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, a panellist at the Astellas Innovation Debate Vice President of the Patients Association, and former Chair of the Human Genetics Commission, where she successfully pushed for a moratorium on access to genetic records for insurance companies and persuaded the Government to make it a criminal offence to test DNA without an individuals consent, commented:

Of course its a testament to mankinds ingenuity that genetics and technology are combining to bring the prospect of personalised medicine much closer. But knowing the facts about our genes can also bring challenges. For example, our genetic information could be misused by insurers, who could over-interpret the information in our genes, wrongly suspect we are susceptible to some disease, and so not provide us with the kind of insurance we need. Similarly, if an employee shared some genetic information with his or her boss that indicated a higher risk of, say, cancer or a neurological disease, as this survey shows the employee would be at higher risk of discrimination in the workplace in the form of redundancy or being passed over for promotion. This in turn leaves the employer vulnerable to accusations of discrimination. And then, on a personal level, employees might well need professional support if they become distressed at the prospect of a disease that they might or might not develop.

Some US technology companies are offering employees DNA screening to identify the risk of cancers, and holding out the promise of personalised treatment based on their genetic make-up should they need it. However, I would urge UK businesses not to follow suit certainly not without thinking very carefully about the wider implications to them and their employees. It is not just a matter of potential discrimination and lawsuits, but also of the health benefits to those being tested. Of course, we all recognise the importance of screening people with a family history of certain diseases and rare genetic disorders as the 100,000 Genomes Project is currently doing but there is little benefit to widespread genetic testing if it cant tell you when or even if you will develop the disease.

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Genetic screening for workers: A panacea or a pandora's box?

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