Will genetically-informed medicine upend medical confidentiality?

ABC v St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust and Others [2017] EWCA Civ 336 – read judgment

All the advocates in this case are from 1 Crown Office Row. Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, Henry Witcomb QC and Jim Duffy for the Appellant, and Philip Havers QC and Hannah Noyce for the Respondents. None of them were involved in the writing of this post.

In a fascinating twist to the drama of futuristic diagnosis, the Court of Appeal has allowed an argument that doctors treating a Huntington’s patient should have imparted information about his diagnosis to his pregnant daughter to go to trial.

The background to this case is outlined in my earlier post on Nicol J’s ruling in the court below. A patient with an inherited fatal disease asked his doctors not to disclose information to his daughter. The daughter came upon this information accidentally, shortly after the birth of her child, and found, after a genetic test, that she suffered from this condition as well, which has a 50% chance of appearing in the next generation. Had she known this, she would have sought a termination of the pregnancy. She claimed that the doctors were liable to her in damages for the direct effect on her health and welfare.

A claim for “wrongful birth” is well established in law; no claim was made on behalf of the child, who was too young to be tested for the condition. The twist is the duty of secrecy between doctor and patient, which has held very well for the past two centuries. Short of confessions pertaining to homicide or information regarding contagious diseases, the dialogue behind the consulting door should end there.

The problem is that the typical medical relationship only pertains to the pathology of the individual patient. Now that tests are available that make every single one of us a walking diagnosis not only for our own offspring but those of our siblings and their offspring, the one-to-one scenario collapses, along with the limited class of people to whom a doctor owes a duty of care. The pregnant daughter who came across the information about her father’s condition was not the defendant doctor’s patient. In pre-genetic days, that meant there was no duty of care relationship between her father’s doctors and her. But the certainty of hereditability brings her into that circle. Continue reading

When the Sh*t hits the Ban

Genetic Information Nondiscrimination ActJack Lowe and Dennis Reynolds, Plaintiffs v Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services

The first prosecution under the 2008 US Genetic  Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) has won $2.25 million jury damages for the individuals involved .

I have posted about genetic discrimination here and here. In the US some of these problems have been foreseen and legislated against: GINA prohibits discrimination against healthy individuals for employment decisions or health insurance purposes on the basis of genetic information alone; it also prevents employers and insurance providers from demanding or using information from genetic tests.

The law does include limited exemptions, however. Forensic laboratories can ask workers for their DNA to check that employees’ genetic material does not contaminate the genetic samples that they analyse. Continue reading

Can we keep our genomes quiet? Some suggestions from the US

DNA database impact on human rights

I have posted previously on the logistical difficulties in legislating against genetic discrimination.

The prospect that genetic information not only affects insurance and employment opportunities is alarming enough. But it has many other implications: it could be used to deny financial backing or loan approval, educational opportunities, sports eligibility, military accession, or adoption eligibility.  At the moment,  the number of documented cases of discrimination on the basis of genetic test results is small. This is probably due to the relatively few conditions for which there are currently definitive genetic tests, coupled with the expense and difficulty of conducting these tests. But genetic discrimination is a time bomb waiting to be triggered and the implications of whole genome sequencing (WGS) are considered in a very interesting and readable report by the US Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues  Privacy and Progress in Whole Genome Sequencing. 

Continue reading