Recent advances in molecular genetics have highlighted the potential use of genetic testing to screen for adult-onset chronic diseases. Several issues must be addressed, however, before such tests can be recommended for population-based prevention programs. These issues include the adequacy of the scientific evidence, the balance of risks and benefits, the need for counseling and informed consent, and the costs and resources required. Ongoing assessment of the screening program and quality assurance of laboratory testing are also needed. This paper considers the application of general principles for mass screening to genetic testing for susceptibility to adult-onset chronic diseases. Evaluation of proposals for genetic screening in context of these principles reveals that needed evidence is often absent, particularly with respect to the predictive value of tests, efficacy of interventions, and social consequences of testing. The principles of population screening are developed into a framework for public health policy on genetic screening that has three stages: assessment of the screening test and interventions for those who test positive, including assessment of risks and costs, policy development, and program evaluation. Essential elements are identified, including evaluation of evidence and processes for consensus development and program evaluation. The proposed framework for public health policy-making outlined in this commentary, when combined with future efforts that involve an authoritative consensus process, may be useful for the evaluation and planning of genetic screening programs aimed at reducing morbidity and mortality from adult-onset chronic diseases.
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