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Opportunities and risks in genetic testing, says Gen Re

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Insurers and customers alike can benefit from genomic advances “where the interests of both are aligned by a shared desire to avoid early death from known genetic risk”, Gen Re says.

“The [UK-based] PHG Foundation, a genomics think-tank, says applying genomic techniques is essential for insurers that are keen to offer a more holistic approach to customers,” Life and Health Underwriting Manager in Cologne Annika Tiedemann said.

Genetic testing is increasingly common and the cost is falling, encouraging consumers to access services online.

But Ms Tiedemann warns consumers’ use of predictive tests raises concerns the results could influence their approach to life insurance.

“Gene testing is used primarily in diagnosis,” she said. “Predictive genetic tests – the type bought over the counter – can determine a person’s risk of disease.

“Although the personalisation of treatment affords an individual the best chance of survival, in an underwriting context the priority is setting a reasonable premium on the basis of a statistical analysis.”

Ms Tiedemann says international legal jurisdictions have taken different approaches to allowing genetic testing results to be used in life insurance.

In Australia insurers may ask applicants if they have taken a test or plan to, and insurers select the information they use with extreme care.

The US has state laws that regulate when genetic information may be used. Canada has a judicial review considering recent legislation to prevent insurers using genetic tests.

In Europe some countries ban the use of genetic testing results. Others allow limited use on specific policies, while some have no regulations.

“Perhaps this is why the Council of Europe has left open the possibility of the use of genomic data by the insurance industry,” Ms Tiedemann said.

There are arguments for using or banning genetic testing, she says.

“On the one hand, any new information used by insurers must be evaluated carefully, because not all genetic information is useful at accurately predicting risk,” Ms Tiedemann said.

“But it is important to take into account the financial and moral risks to insurance pooling associated with a consumer holding potentially valuable risk information they are not obliged to share.”