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Be careful what you wish for

New survey reveals risks of offering genetic screening as a perk

Tread carefully: Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC
Tread carefully: Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC

One quarter of UK bosses would like to extend health screening into genetic testing as they strive to retain and attract top talent, a new survey has found. A further 16% would consider screening if it reduced the cost of key person insurance.

The option is becoming more attractive for businesses and top employees as the price of full DNA testing falls and the development of medicines fine-tuned to a patient’s genetic make-up becomes a possibility.

Yet legal considerations remain a stumbling block, with 76% of UK business leaders questioned ahead of the Astellas Innovation Debate 2015 citing potential legal repercussions as an inhibiting factor. In the UK, it is a criminal offence to test DNA without an individual’s consent and European legislation prohibits businesses from gaining access to their employees’ genetic data.

Baroness Helena Kennedy, QC, Vice President of the Patients Association and former Chair of the Human Genetics Committee, suggests these qualms are well placed, pointing out that genetic screening of employees could be more Pandora’s box than panacea.

She said: “It’s a testament to mankind’s 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, 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.”

In the Astellas survey, one in five bosses (22%) admitted that an employee who revealed a genetic risk of serious illness would run a greater risk of redundancy and become less eligible for promotion.

The Astellas Innovation Debate, organised and funded by Astellas Pharma EMEA, took place at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on 29th January 2015.

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