What Matters

Does sharing genetic risk change behavior?



In the era of individualized (or precision) medicine, we are presented with a unique opportunity to peer into the genetic “maps” of our patients. Through this window, we can envision the self-evident present or predict a possible future.

For the front-line provider, knowing that we could someday have a large amount of these data to deal with can be overwhelming. We may be loath to think that, amongst all the other daily battles we wage with current disease states, we may now need to understand and explain risk for future disease states.

Dr. Jon O. Ebbert

Dr. Jon O. Ebbert

But would we be more likely to use these data if we thought that they would change patient behavior? Maybe.

So does it?

Gareth Hollands, Ph.D., of the University of Cambridge, England, and his colleagues conducted a brilliantly timed and welcome systematic review of the literature assessing the impact of communicating DNA-based disease risk estimates on risk-reducing health behaviors and motivation to engage in such behaviors (BMJ. 2016 Mar 15;352:i1102).

Eighteen studies were found reporting on seven behavioral outcomes, including smoking cessation (six studies, n = 2,663), diet (seven studies, n = 1,784), and physical activity (six studies, n = 1,704). The smoking studies related genetic risk for lung or esophageal cancer; the diet studies related risk for diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and Alzheimer’s disease; and the physical activity studies related risks similar to the diet studies.

No evidence was found that communicating DNA-based risk increased smoking cessation or led to positive changes in diet or physical activity. Nor did the investigators find any effects on motivation to change behavior. Although this information is not motivating to patients, no evidence was found suggesting that it is demotivating, either.

If neither behavior nor motivation is modified by DNA-based risk assessment, what is it good for? As the authors pointed out, this information can be used for clinical risk stratification and for refining screening and treatment procedures.

It’s important to note that this puts the responsibility for the required action in response to DNA data in the hands of medical providers – sadly reminding us that the list of ways to motivate patients to change behavior remains frustratingly short.

Dr. Ebbert is professor of medicine, a general internist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Mayo Clinic. The opinions expressed in this article should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition nor should they be used as a substitute for medical advice from a qualified, board-certified practicing clinician. Dr. Ebbert has no relevant financial disclosures about this article.

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