The power of genetic information has shaped virtually every aspect of medicine. On one hand, we have learned about diseases and treatments that are now defined by patients’ genomes. Certain genes can predict colorectal cancer with near certainty and, in women, the BRCA mutations, famously discussed by Angelina Jolie, can denote a greater than 80 percent risk of developing breast cancer. We can screen newborns for dozens of genetic diseases and immediately know which diets to avoid giving them or which medications to begin early. Physicians are using genetic markers to better tailor therapies to individual patients. We are certainly entering a new era.
Yet, amid these exciting advances, we are constantly reminded of the risks of this brave new world. Genetics is progressing faster than we can understand its consequences and, in the middle of this chaos, ordinary Americans have become subject to technology that we cannot entirely control. Scientists are only beginning to characterize the psychological impacts of receiving a genetic diagnosis that may not manifest itself for years. Most doctors are not trained to handle their patients’ genetic profiles and stumble through conversations filled with anxiety and uncertainty. In a study released in 2011, 71 percent of Americans expressed concern over the privacy of genetic tests.