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RCGP warns GPs against interpreting genetic tests from commercial companies

Companies selling genetic tests to the public are advising patients to see their GP to get the results interpreted, the chair of the RCGP has said.

RCGP chair rofessor Helen Stokes-Lampard said it is the responsibility of the companies carrying out the tests to provide feedback or advice.

She said GPs had escalating workloads and did not have the time to discuss these tests, adding that doctors do not yet have the expertise to interpret the results in a way that is beneficial to patients.

Her comments came in response to an article in the BMJ warning of the dangers of online or shop-bought genetic tests in informing medical decisions.

Professor Anneke Lucassen, a clinical genetics expert at the University of Southampton, and others behind the article pointed out that interpretation of genetic data ‘is complex and context-dependent’ and consumer genetic tests might report both false positive and false negative results.

They added that when people get ‘bad news’ results from one of these genetic tests, many will turn to their GP for advice.

The authors suggested any GPs put in this position should discuss possible sources of error and, where appropriate, shift the conversation from genetic risk to lifestyle changes that can reduce risk of disease.

Professor Stokes-Lampard said the RCGP had been contacted by GPs who had been asked by patients to advise about the results of genetic tests.

She reiterated the RCGP’s concerns about the potential for the tests to cause ‘undue worry or inappropriate reassurance’ for patients.

She said: ‘Our members have reported patients coming to see them with the results of commercial genetic tests, asking for them to be interpreted – and some commercial companies actually advise this instead of providing the necessary advice and feedback themselves.

‘But GPs and our teams are already working under intense resource and workforce pressures – with patients waiting too long for a routine appointment as a result – so this is not a good use of our time or NHS resources, and should be the direct responsibility of the companies that are being paid to perform the tests.’

She added that while genomic sequencing data has the potential to improve the care patients receive in the future she agreed with the BMJ authors that at the moment caution is needed.

She added: ‘Genetic testing shouldn’t simply be done to satisfy a patient’s curiosity about their health as the results could have very real implications.

‘But as it stands, we don’t have the expertise to interpret them in a sophisticated enough way to be of great benefit for our patients.’