Experts Assess Challenge of Educating the Public about Genetics

Media Contact:
Nalini Padmanabhan
ASHG Communications Manager

For Immediate Release
Friday, April 18, 2014
9:00 am U.S. Eastern Time (UTC-05:00)

In New Report, ASHG Considers Roles of Schools, Internet, Media, and Providers

BETHESDA, MD – While genetics research and its applications to human health have made significant advances in recent years, the public’s understanding of genetics concepts has generally failed to keep up, according to a review article by science education specialists at the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) published this month in Current Genetic Medicine Reports. In addition to the formal science education of children in schools, the review authors write, the media, the Internet, and health care providers are key sources of information that can be leveraged to improve public understanding of these concepts.

Led by Michael Dougherty, PhD, Director of Education of ASHG, the authors analyzed genetic literacy with two objectives in mind: improving public understanding of the nature of life on earth and the human population; and setting the stage for a future of medicine informed by genetics.

“Traditionally, the K-12 science curriculum has included material on traits primarily influenced by a single gene, and has tended to ignore the genetics behind conditions such as heart disease or cancer that are affected by the confluence of multiple genes and the environment,” explained Dr. Dougherty. Moreover, he added, “when genetic influences on such conditions are reported in the media or online, they are often oversimplified and their impact is overstated.”

Even when health care providers are involved, difficulties remain. Genetics specialists, who treat chromosomal disorders and other health conditions strongly influenced by genes, have been trained to handle such issues with patients and their families. Specialists in other areas of medicine, however, likely have not received this training, despite the discovery of genes associated with the diseases they treat.

In the future, the authors explained, decisions about medical treatments and preventive care regimens will be increasingly driven by knowledge of a given patient’s genes. In the growing field of pharmacogenomics, for example, scientists use a patient’s DNA sequence data to optimize the effectiveness of his or her drug regimen and minimize side effects. As such techniques become more common, improving the public’s understanding of genetics will help the new approaches achieve their full potential.

Fortunately, varied opportunities to improve genetic literacy exist. According to the review, this should take place in multiple contexts, such as:

  • K-12 science classes, which will require a long-term, coordinated effort at the state and local levels, including updating textbooks and training teachers
  • The media, which will require more nuanced communication between scientists and journalists about both the promise and the limitations of genetic research
  • The Internet, which will require readers to better differentiate between accurate and questionable sources, perhaps mediated by an expert’s referral to certain websites; and
  • Health care settings, which will require providers to fully understand how genetics relates to their specialties and convey the relevant information to their patients.

About the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG)

Founded in 1948, the American Society of Human Genetics is the primary professional membership organization for human genetics specialists worldwide. Its nearly 8,000 members include researchers, academicians, clinicians, laboratory practice professionals, genetic counselors, nurses, and others with an interest in human genetics. The Society serves scientists, health professionals, and the public by providing forums to: (1) share research results through the ASHG Annual Meeting and in The American Journal of Human Genetics; (2) advance genetic research by advocating for research support; (3) educate current and future genetics professionals, health care providers, advocates, policymakers, educators, students, and the public about all aspects of human genetics; and (4) promote genetic services and support responsible social and scientific policies. For more information, visit:


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