Communicating risk in human terms

October 4, 2017

Pär SegerdahlThe concept of risk used in genetics is a technical term. For the specialist, risk is the probability of an undesired event, for example, that an individual develops some form of cancer. Risk is usually stated as a percentage.

It is well known that patients have difficulties to access the probability notion of risk. What do their difficulties mean?

Technical notions, which experts use in their specialist fields, usually have high status. The attitude is: this is what risk really is. Based on such an attitude, people’s difficulties mean: they have difficulties to understand risk. Therefore, we have to help them understand, by using educational tools that explain to them what we mean (we who know what risk is).

We could speak of communicating risk in the experts’ terms (and on their terms). Of course, one tries to communicate risk as simply and accessibly as possible. However, the notion of ​​what to communicate is fixed. Anything else would disturb the attitude that the expert knows what risk really is.

In an article in Patient Education and Counseling, Jennifer Viberg Johansson (along with Pär Segerdahl, Ulrika Hösterey Ugander, Mats G. Hansson and Sophie Langenskiöld) makes an inquiry that departs from this pattern. She explores how people themselves make sense of genetic risk.

How does Viberg’s study depart from the pattern? She does not use the technical notion of risk as the norm for understanding risk.

Viberg interviewed healthy participants in a large research project. She found that they avoided the technical, probability notion of genetic risk. Instead, they used a binary concept of risk. Genetic risk (e.g., for breast cancer) is something that you have or do not have.

Furthermore, they interpreted risk in three ways in terms of time. Past: The risk has been in my genome for a long time. When symptoms arise, the genetic risk is the cause of the disease. Present: The risk is in my genome now, making me a person who is at risk. Future: The risk will be in my genome my entire life, but maybe I can control it through preventive measures.

These temporal dimensions are not surprising. People try to understand risk in the midst of their lives, which evolve in time.

It is not the case, then, that people “fail” to understand. They do understand, but in their own terms. They think of genetic risk as something that one has or does not have. They understand genetic risk in terms of how life evolves in time. A practical conclusion that Viberg draws is that we should try to adapt genetic risk communication to these “lay” conceptions of risk, which probably help people make difficult decisions.

We could speak of communicating risk in human terms (and on human terms). What does genetic risk mean in terms of someone’s past, present and future life?

When you talk with people with lives to live, that is probably what the risk really is.

Pär Segerdahl

J. Viberg Johansson, et al., Making sense of genetic risk: A qualitative focus-group study of healthy participants in genomic research, Patient Educ Couns (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2017.09.009

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


What is the risk?

November 2, 2016

Pär SegerdahlTo communicate about genetic risk with patients, we need to know how people think about risk and that experts and people in general often think differently.

A common feature, however, is this: Risk has to do with future adverse events. We talk about the risk of getting sick. But we rarely talk about the risk of getting well. We must then imagine people who value their disease (perhaps to avoid enrollment in an occupation army).

The expert’s concept of risk presupposes the negative value, but does not delve into it. It focuses on the probability that the unwanted event will happen (and how certain/uncertain the probability is).

For patients, however, the value aspect probably is more in focus. A couple learning about a 25% risk of having a child with a certain disability probably considers how bad such impairment would be: for the child and themselves. Maybe it isn’t so bad? Perhaps there is no great “risk” at all! They evaluate the risk scenario rather than calculate the probability.

How can we understand this value aspect, which risk presupposes and patients ponder? Ulrik Kihlbom at CRB asks the question in an article in the Journal of Risk Research.

Kihlbom describes two common ways of understanding value. The first is in terms of preferences. People have different preferences. Most prefer health before sickness, but occasionally someone may prefer disease. Value lies in satisfying these preferences, whatever they are. There is then only one value: preference satisfaction. The problem is that we can object that these preferences are not always reasonable or well informed. Additionally, patients can adapt to their illness and prefer their lives as much as healthy persons prefer their lives. Is it valuable to satisfy even such preferences?

Not surprisingly, the other way of understanding value is more objective. Here one assumes that value depends on how well certain basic human capabilities are supported. Such as being able to use one’s senses, imagine, think, play, be healthy, etc. Here there is a more objective measure of value. The problem is the authority the measure is given. May not a person lack some of these capabilities and still live a full and dignified life? Who decides which capabilities should belong to the measure?

Actually, I would say that both proposals impose a measure of value. Preference satisfaction is, of course, a general measure too.

Kihlbom proposes a third way of understanding value. No measure of value is imposed and value is not separated from that which has value. If someone gets cancer, the negative value lies already in the disease, so to speak. A person who knows what cancer is does not ask: “Why is it bad to get cancer?” And hardly anybody would answer: “Because it frustrates my preferences” or “Because it prevents me from flourishing as a human being.”

Knowing what disease is means knowing that it is bad. It is part of the point of the word. To exclaim, “I’m so sick!” is to complain (not to rejoice). The value lies in the phenomenon itself and in the word. If some people still value their disease (perhaps to avoid military service), the value lies in the situation where the disease can appear as a good thing.

This is probably how people approach genetic risk information: What does this mean in my life? How bad is it? They immerse themselves in the value aspect, which the numerical probability presupposes. The 25-percent risk of having a child with a certain disability leads to concerns over what such a life might turn out to be like; how it can be described; how it can be valued.

So what should we keep in mind in genetic risk communication? The novelty about genetic risk information is not only that patients get difficult to interpret percentages of probability. The scenarios are new. These scenarios can involve time perspectives that extend throughout one’s future life, even to future generations. They can be about diseases and treatments that we do not know what it means to live with.

We evaluate risks daily (like the risk of missing the train), but here patients encounter novel risk scenarios that are difficult to evaluate. If I understand Kihlbom right, he thinks that the challenge is not only to explain probabilities to patients. The challenge is not least that of talking with patients about these new risk scenarios: about how they react to them in terms of value, how they describe them as “catastrophic” or “not so bad.”

Patients need support to evaluate genetic risk scenarios reasonably; not only to understand probabilities.

Pär Segerdahl

Kihlbom, U. 2016. “Genetic Risk and Value.” Journal of Risk Research, DOI: 10.1080 / 13669877.2016.1200653

This post in Swedish

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


Laboratories interpret genetic test results differently

June 15, 2015

Pär SegerdahlA new study suggests that the results of genetic tests are not always as reliable as we want to believe. A comparison between laboratories providing these tests shows that the same genetic variant can be interpreted differently.

A single gene variant can thus be interpreted as an increased risk of breast cancer by one laboratory, but as no increased risk by another.

Given that the results of genetic tests can motivate a person to undergo, or not undergo, preventive surgery, this is quite alarming.

Genetic risks are not literally written in our genes. They require interpreting the significance of different genetic variants. The interpretation requires research that can show whether the variant is associated with increased risk of disease or not.

Most variants cannot be interpreted at all. Many are so rare that there is no data to even begin interpreting their meaning.

If I understand correctly, interpretations differ partly because laboratories do not always share their data. Their interpretations are based on limited studies using their own data. Such studies may point in different directions.

In addition to emphasizing the importance of open data, all this shows that we cannot take genetic tests or effective healthcare for granted. They require ongoing research work with large amounts of data.

We easily neglect this: how research continuously underpins healthcare.

But even with better interpretations of genetic tests, it will be difficult to interpret what the results mean for the individual.

Genetic risk continues to be a complex concept.

Pär Segerdahl

Following the news - the ethics blog


Biobank news: ethics and law

April 23, 2014

The second issue of the newsletter from CRB and BBMRI.se is now available:

This April issue contains four interesting news items about:

  1. New international research cooperation on genetic risk information.
  2. The new Swedish law on registers for research on heritage, environment and health.
  3. The legislative process of developing a European data protection regulation.
  4. A new article on trust and ethical regulation.

You’ll also find a link to a two-page PDF-version of the newsletter.

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend readings - the Ethics Blog


Genetic compatibility as a new dimension of partnership?

April 9, 2014

JULIA INTHORN is associated researcher and working on genetic risk information and pre-conceptional genetic screeningPreconception genetic carrier tests can inform a person if he/she is carrier of a recessive disease. In case the partner is also a carrier of the same disease, the couple has an increased risk (usually a 1 in 4 risk) to have a child with this disease. Current research in genetics works on developing tests for up to 600 of such recessive inherited diseases. Couples can use this test when planning a pregnancy and check if they are both carriers of the same disease.

In case a couple who are both carriers wants to rule out the risk of having an affected child they have different options: Medical options range from using IVF and preimplantation genetic tests to prenatal test (and the option of abortion in case the child is affected) to using donor gametes. Non-medical options are refraining from having children, adopting children or changing partner.

Preconception genetic carrier screening adds a new dimension to the question of family planning and partnership. In the rhetoric about partnerships – in online tests, horoscopes and questionnaires of online dating services – compatibility of partners is already a great issue connected to questions like matching in taste and interests but also similarity of background.

Genetic (in)compatibility is a new hitherto undiscussed aspect of partnership and marriage. While the idea of testing the genetic compatibility of partners might seem very unromantic to some the question of raising a seriously ill child together poses some important questions: questions of how partners imagine to be parents together, how they envision responsibility for a child and what kind of medical and non medical measures they think are acceptable.

Thinking about integrating genetic information into our concepts of family will challenge our ideas of responsible parenthood. We need not only to make decisions carefully but also to understand how decisions influence possible future plans: Building on a partnership irrespective of genetics leads to other questions and options in family planning than checking genetic compatibility during dating.

Discussions about integrating new genetic information into our concepts of family planning should address what options are most important and how to open up rooms of choices.

Julia Inthorn

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


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