The rise of genetic testing over the past few decades has been a positive advancement in the medical field. Specific information about one’s genetic makeup helps guide decision-making surrounding an individual’s health journey.
You may recall the genetic screening reverberation after actress Angelina Jolie opted to undergo a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Unfortunately, Jolie’s ultimate decision may not be suitable for everyone who has her particular gene mutation. Enlisting the help of a genetic counselor is a good first step for anyone who is thinking about undergoing genetic testing. Individuals need to have every piece of pertinent information before making extreme health decisions.
Yet, a genetic counselor isn’t the only one who can help individuals make health decisions. When equipped with knowledge about genetic testing and how it applies to patient care, nurses can play a key role in optimizing patient outcomes. Graduates of a Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program are ready to give patients the necessary information to make sound health decisions.
Differentiating Genetics, Genomics and Epigenetics
While some may interchange the terms genetics, genomics and epigenetics, there are distinct differences. The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) provides a good overview.
- Genetics: encompasses the study of genes and their effects on the human body
- Genomics: includes the interaction of genes and how they work together to produce certain medical effects
- Epigenetics: explores the way environmental factors impact genes
- There’s also pharmacogenetics: a study in the field that looks at how individuals may respond to medications based on their personal genetic makeup. Armed with this information, physicians and pharmacists can work to optimize medication use and reduce potential side effects.
Why Is a Genetic Focus Important?
A person’s genes tell a particular story about their biological state. The study of genetics and genomics allows healthcare professionals to:
- Identify inherited diseases and associated risks
- Determine health risk factors for possible future disease development
- Advise on potential issues spurred by pregnancy and upon birth
- Optimize medication application
- Educate patients on how genetics and genomics can inform their health choices
Not all genetic testing is the same. A few types include single-gene testing, panel testing, exome sequencing and genome sequencing. All serve a dedicated purpose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, “There is no single genetic test that can detect all genetic conditions. The approach to genetic testing is individualized based on your medical and family history and what condition you’re being tested for.”
When physicians and other healthcare providers apply the different types of genetic testing to the specific needs of their patients, they can reveal insights not possible in years’ past. For instance, testing may indicate an increased cancer risk, such as with Jolie. It may inform a person’s decision to become pregnant. Again, there is a lot more that goes into the act of genetic testing and subsequent results. A key consideration is ethics.
Ethics and Genetic Testing
One ethical concern is possessing new knowledge that may affect a family member. How much can (and should) be shared? Another issue involves insurance coverage. If a person learns of a genetic predisposition to a disease such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, what are the health insurance ramifications?
Certain tests may indicate an increased risk for congenital defects in a newborn. What is the ethical fallout of burdening a woman who wants to get pregnant with that information? In all these cases, nurses are uniquely positioned to advise the next steps for their patients.
Nurses’ Role in Genetics and Genomics
Nurses can approach the genetics/genomics discipline in several ways. For example, they can:
- Interpret how patients might feel about genetic testing
- Collect thorough family history records to inform genetic testing recommendations
- Educate patients on the benefits (and potential detriments) of genetic testing
Ensure each patient is receiving appropriate information about genetics and genomics based on culture, religion and language
Advise on the importance of understanding testing outcomes and why a genetic counselor is so valuable
Even if nurses aren’t the ones interpreting the genetic testing, or ordering it, they still play an integral role in helping patients use that information — as they may also provide guidance.
Genetics Is the Future
Genetics and genomics are not “new” in medical practice, but not every nursing program offers coursework tailored to its application in healthcare. The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) online RN to BSN program does. This program introduces students to genetic and genomic concepts in a comprehensive fashion.
For instance, the Genetics and Genomics in Healthcare course explores “emerging knowledge in human molecular genetics and the related implications for health care across the lifespan through multidisciplinary perspectives.” This class covers how genetics and genomics are used for genetically engineered therapies and technologies — to screen for and prevent disease, promote wellness and understand the implications and impacts of genetic practices.
Upon graduation, BSN-prepared nurses have important knowledge and skills to further their nursing careers. Students can complete the program in as few as 12 months.
Learn more about UNCW’s online RN to BSN program.