Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications
Right to know versus right not to know
A hereditary cancer syndrome has been identified in a family. Within that family, an adult child wants a cancer susceptibility test that her parent declined, and one identical twin wants testing but the other does not. Even though the noninterested parties have declined testing and do not want to know the results, it is possible that testing one relative can disclose results for the other family members. Do the rights of the family members interested in predictive testing take precedence over the rights of the relatives who do not want to know? The following issues are important to consider in resolving this case.
- In hereditary cancer syndromes, an individual's right to know takes precedence over an individual's right not to know especially if there are early detection and prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of morbidity and mortality.
- Since the family has a documented deleterious mutation, standard of care recommendations include guidelines for screening and monitoring. In the event that testing is not done, it is important to take "reasonable steps" to guarantee immediate family members are warned of the hereditary cancer risk. (Refer to the Privacy and Confidentiality: Disclosure of Patient's Genetic Information section of this summary for more information.)
- Pretest and posttest discussions can include the possibility of medical, psychological, and social impact on family members and strategies on how to lessen any negative impact. The patient should honor the wishes of relatives who request not to know and attempt to keep the results secret.
Beneficence versus paternalism
A psychological assessment of a patient interested in predictive testing for an autosomal dominant cancer reveals a history of depression and suicidal attempts. The health care provider is considering denying or deferring testing because of concerns for the patient's emotional well-being even though the patient refuses a referral to a psychologist because he reports feeling emotionally stable. Is deferring or denying predictive genetic testing a beneficent gesture or an act of paternalism? The following issues are important to consider in resolving this case.
- Despite the patient's refusal to speak with a psychologist, the health care provider can discuss the details of the case with a mental health professional to determine suicidal risk. (Refer to the Psychological Impact of Genetic Information/Test Results on the Individual section of this summary for more information.)
- If there is risk of psychosocial disturbances because of test results, it is possible to defer testing. Conditions under which testing can resume are explained to the patient. For example, the NSGC Code of Ethics recommends that clients be referred to other qualified professionals when the patient requires additional services.
- Denying a test does not seem justifiable under any circumstances because it implies that the client will never be able to undergo testing.