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Gene tests give GPs ethical nightmare

Government plans for genetic testing to be 'integral' to future health care will leave GPs with profound ethical problems and spiralling workload.

GPs have also warned the proposals released last week could lead to a flood of legal cases from patients.

The white paper proposes GPs will provide genetic tests to assess patients' risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and prescribe drugs and lifestyle changes.

But GPs said many questions were left unanswered by the paper including whether they would test for every disease or just particular ones and whether, when and how to tell a patient when a disease might develop.

GPC negotiator Dr Laurence Buckman called for a public debate. 'What we are doing is telling people what they might die from,' he said. 'What's the point unless you can do something about it? If you can do something about it should the doctor disclose it and would the patient be insurable?'

The Department of Health wants 10 GPs with a special interest in genetics to be in post within the next three years and is investing £2 million for primary care genetics initiatives.

Dr Surendra Kumar, a GP in Widnes, Cheshire, and a member of the BMA's ethics committee, said GPs would be 'the first point of contact for any reservations, clarifications and confusions about results.'

He added that GPs faced a greater threat of legal action from patients. 'If a patient is at risk of developing a certain level of morbidity and has paid thousands in extra premiums but disease doesn't develop, I'm sure lawyers might advise them to recover costs.'

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