Genetic biomarkers and the frets of the 'worried well'

Genetic biomarkers are opening up our knowledge of the basic biology of disease, as well as creating practical tests and companion diagnostics supporting the diagnosis and optimal treatment of disease. However, as they become more widely available, as raised in a piece on the University of Sydney website, some people are concerned that they are also swelling the ranks and the anxiety levels of the "worried well"--the healthy people who visit the doctor to get reassurance, and can now get online genetic tests to confirm or assuage their worries.

Genetic tests to identify risk of disease are now available at the click of a mouse and the swipe of a cheek swab, but the results are not clear-cut. It's true that just having the increased risk of a disorder isn't a guarantee of developing the full-blown disease, and could generate a "sense" of being ill without ever actually becoming unwell, and this may not be healthy for the individual or his or her family. As the piece discusses, the growth of these tests could have potential to medicalize this state of being "at risk" of illness, diverting valuable resources away from the genuinely ill.

It is important to be aware that widely available genetic tests could create anxiety about illness where it does not need to be. Because after all, I'm sure the worried well have always been with us and always will. However, on the flip side, the expansion of knowledge about genetic biomarkers have led to some authentic and exciting breakthroughs, and are, after all, one of the reasons why I write and you read this newsletter. And genetic testing online can reveal the risk of disease that can be avoided through lifestyle changes or treatment, and is the basis of some fascinating crowdsourced research. It is also something that simply piques people's interest and curiosity. Long live genetic biomarkers! -- Suzanne Elvidge (email)