Communicating Genetic Testing
Ashlyn Lisner ’15 wanted to find which communication techniques would encourage people to seek answers to genetic uncertainties.
When Ashlyn Lisner’s younger brother was an infant, he suffered from pyloric stenosis, a malfunction in the stomach’s ability to close. As a result, he was unable to hold down food or liquids. Even at age 8 Lisner understood her family’s stress but remembered the pediatrician neutralizing the situation with his calm demeanor.
Her brother recovered, and she found a career path: medicine. The first-generation college student from Houston has been accepted at the University of Texas School of Medicine in San Antonio. Once Lisner completes her medical training, she plans to devote a good deal of attention to her beside manner, and along those lines her undergraduate research project focused on doctor-patient communication.
“As someone who [wants] to be a physician, to practice communication consciously [is] a big deal,” said Lisner, who received a degree in biology and communication.
“Knowledge is Power”
For the research project, Lisner decided to study how doctor-patient communication styles affect the decision-making process in pursuing genetic testing.
“In the next 10 years, everything is going to be about genetics,” said Lisner, who took a course on the subject. “I wanted to do something that mattered in terms of the world of health and the world of communication.”
Lisner conducted her project’s literature review with the help of Adam Richards, assistant professor of communication, who specializes in communication research in health care. She found a dearth of studies on communicating about genetic testing.
While some people may not want to know what is around the corner, for an aspiring physician, genetic testing is preferable because of the additional information and potential diversion of a negative health outcome.
“Prevention is always the best thing,” said the young researcher. “It’s interesting to think about holding the key to what your body does, and what it looks like, and what it might look like in the future.”
For example, some kinds of genetic testing allow people to learn about their likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A portion of those patients who receive a positive diagnosis might suffer a deep depression, said Lisner. But others might make lifestyle changes, such as diet modification, to delay the onset or potentially prevent the disease.
The power to influence the future is one of the variables Lisner wanted to explore in decision-making about genetic testing. The level of uncertainty, perceived risk and amount of available information are a few others. If she could alter those variables, could she increase the participants’ chances of seeking genetic tests?
“I wanted to do something that mattered in terms of the world of health and the world of communication”
Her quantitative experiment included about 150 college students enrolled in an introductory communication course. The participants took an online survey about a fictitious disease, their likelihood to carry an associated gene, and their ability to do anything about it. She randomly altered each survey’s variables.
The study’s strongest results showed that participants warned about potential genetic predisposition were far more likely to seek the genetic tests than those who were not. Power to influence the outcome did affect the test seeking, but not to the degree that she expected.
Lisner wants to see more research in the way doctors engage in a “more informed and conscious use of strategic communication.” She said doctors and patients are invested in the same outcome and working toward the same goal of good health. While all diagnoses are not good news, “knowledge is power.”