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Opinion: We should increase education of genomics in our curriculum

Genomics is becoming more mainstream. Health systems are increasingly implementing genomics into routine care, people are showing a higher interest into their ancestry and risk factors, so understandably, every stakeholder in the process should have a baseline understanding of genomics. It is well documented that targeted genomic education for various healthcare roles is needed in the future for everyone who works healthcare, from general practitioners to nurses, biomedical scientists to midwives and the like. In 2014, Health Education England (HEE) launched a four-year Genomics Education Programme to help educate the NHS workforce with the knowledge, skills and experience to strengthen the UK Genomics space.

But what about the general public?

This 2014 study interviewed a group of 25 educated people on their thoughts on genomic education, with nearly all of them agreeing that more needs to be done to educate the general public. They also went over the rationale of educating the public, where this could be done and who is responsible for delivering this education. People who were being identified as being responsible for the education ranged from teachers, researchers in clinical studies and the media to help people understand the inevitability of genomic medicine and elucidate concerns.

Personally, I don’t remember having any interest in genetics until I was around 17 years old studying Biology at college level of education. I remember drawing Punnett squares to predict the colours of flowers and I wasn’t really interested. Even as I started my university education, we started by learning about the genome of fruit flies and their eye colour and I never imagined wanting to read about genetics in my spare time. My interest was caught however, when we touched upon cancer genetics, heritable traits, epigenetics, and genetic diseases. I can still remember the genetic diseases we needed to learn about and how these genes could be targeted for personalised medicine.  I also remember, how from one year to the next, a genetics lecture being started with an update on new developments since last year’s study, and we had to relearn a section of the course.

But what about people who do not pursue scientific education? The people whose scientific background only goes as far as compulsory study. Should a baseline understanding of genetics and how this can impact their health and future healthcare options be mandatory?

In the UK, the NHS is implementing more genomics than ever before and the number people who will be offered genomic tests is going to grow. A study in 2016 surveyed 1954 members of the UK population to get their views on genomic sequencing as part of clinical practice. Overall, the participants had a positive view of genomic sequencing, thinking it was “informative”, and over half of them would expect to be told about incidental findings whether they had asked for them or not. People should not only hear about the implications of genomic testing at the point where they are being offered a test and giving their informed consent.

I believe it should be mandatory to learn the basics of genetics and the effects it has on human health at an age where it hits the general population. Genetics should be introduced into the curriculum earlier, with human examples to show how this can impact people’s own health and wellbeing. I recently had a conversation regarding my role as content manager at FLG with a friend, who asked “what is genomics?”. When I explained it was about DNA and genetics, he then told me he had done a DNA test from a commercial direct to consumer provider to get ancestry insights. The public are clearly engaging with genomics without realising the breadth of the field.

Genomics is a hugely powerful tool and the general population should know about it!

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Education / Genomics / Opinion