Genetic Testing - A Blessing or a Curse?
The rise of genetic testing in recent years is fueling a debate in insurance circles over the potential risks versus benefits posed by the readily available genetic information. Insurers, physicians and consumer protection organizations all have strong positions on the issue, albeit often with very diverse opinions.
It’s fair to say that there are big concerns on all sides. Consumer protection agencies, for example, point to the particular nature of genetic information and the need for privacy. They fear that if genetic information falls into insurers’ hands, it could result in individuals being denied access to insurance cover - which is of existential importance to an applicant whose genes indicate a predisposition to a critical disease.
Insurers, naturally, fear an asymmetry of information where applicants can find out more than insurers about their health - and their risk of disease - thanks to increasingly precise, cost-effective and easily available genetic testing kits. This could result in their buying (or also not buying or lapsing) insurance cover in a targeted, anti-selective, way.
Finally, physicians point out that insurance customers who fear the use of genetic information by the insurer could decide against undergoing important genetic tests. This could lead to delay of preventative treatment for disease, with correspondingly negative effects on customers’ health.
However, awareness on all sides is increasing with regard to the potential benefits from using genetic information in the insurance context. For example, the insurer who knows a customer’s genetic disposition could draw his or her attention to the risk of illness. In the case of avoidable illnesses, this could support avoiding the onset of illness and thus prevent the insured event from occurring in the first place - which is in the interest of both parties involved.
Nobody suggests that insurers will force their customers to carry out genetic tests in the future. The right for individuals not to know, i. e. to remain uninformed about one’s own disease risks, and to spare oneself the fears that this may entail, is undisputed.
Some insurers have even started offering their customers genetic tests on a voluntary basis, as a cost-free addition to an insurance policy. The idea is to help health-conscious customers obtain lifestyle-related recommendations and advice. At no point in time would the insurer have access to the genetic information or the resulting recommendations.
The handling of genetic information is arguably one of the biggest issues facing the insurance industry today. Time will tell whether it acts as a disruptor or opens up new business areas that will allow insurers to take on a different role in their relationship with customers.
It won’t be long before we find out. While the pace of regulatory activity seems slow, the intensity of behind-the-scenes discussions in different countries suggests that big decisions on a future direction are just around the corner.
What’s clear today is that the goal for policymakers must be rules that are simple and transparent to ensure that genetic information is handled in a way that’s free of prejudice and is fair to both partners.