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Poll: Public Favors Genetics Funding, Physician Involvement in Genetic Testing

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – A majority of Americans believe the federal government should increase funding for human genetics research, robustly support laws protecting against genetic discrimination, and think that doctors should play a role in helping them understand the results of genetic tests, according to a new survey.

The Yale University-led survey, published on Genetics in Medicine's website yesterday, sought to gather public views on three of the major issues in the contemporary genetics landscape.

The findings suggest that Americans see both the value of genetics research and the potential perils of misunderstanding or misusing personal genetic information According to the authors, their findings could be useful for scientists, policymakers, federal agencies, and regulators.

The study surveyed the views of 2,100 adults across the US, and was a roughly representative cross-section of the US population along racial, ethnic, gender, and education-level lines. It was administered by the non-partisan research firm YouGov in January 2011.

On federal spending for genetics research, the survey found that 57 percent of the respondents believe that the government should spend more than it does now, whereas 27 percent thought the funding levels should remain the same, and 15 percent wanted less federal money spent on this field.

The statistically significant factors on the federal funding issue included political affiliation, gender, and race. Women were more likely than men, Democrats more likely than Republicans and independents, and nonwhites more likely than whites to support increased federal spending on genetics research.

When asked about their views on whether medical professionals should be involved in explaining consumer genetic test results, 65 percent said such professionals should be involved, "a strong majority," the authors noted.

Some were ambivalent on this question, as 26 percent were not sure whether or not medical professionals should be involved, and only 9 percent said that such involvement is not necessary.

"Medical journals have published many editorials expressing concerns about companies that offer genetic tests directly to consumers," Yale sociologist Rene Almeling, an author on the study, said in a statement. "What we did that was new was to ask members of the public whether they thought this was a good idea."

The respondents showed a low level of general awareness of direct-to-consumer genetic tests. Only around one-fifth of the participants said they had heard of firms that are marketing genetic tests directly to consumers, the study found.

The most lopsided finding was that the Americans in the poll overwhelmingly support protections against genetic discrimination, with 82 percent saying that the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act is an important law.

The genetic discrimination question began by explaining that in 2008 the federal government passed the GINA law to prohibit health insurers and employers from discriminating on the basis of genetic information, and then asked the survey participants to rate how important this law is.

The authors said that this was the only policy question in the survey that found education level to be statistically significant, as individuals with higher levels of education were more likely to rank GINA as an important law.

"In the ongoing debates over policy issues in genetics, it's important to keep in mind the views of those most affected by such debates," Almeling said. "These results are useful for scientists designing studies, clinicians working with patients, federal agencies setting budget priorities, and legislators designing regulations."