Purpose: Genetic research is progressing at a rapid rate. While most view genetic advances favorably, concerns regarding eugenics and discrimination based on genetic test results have been raised. These concerns have been found among all groups studied; however, they have particular relevance for members of the African American community. Studies have shown that because of a long history of negative experiences, African Americans have a general mistrust of the medical establishment. It is unclear whether these negative attitudes encompass genetic advances. Because there is little empiric data in the literature, it is not known whether African Americans have a positive view of genetic advances or whether they have the same level of mistrust as is seen in their attitudes toward other forms of biomedical research.
Methods: This study was conducted as an initial effort to examine the attitudes of African Americans toward recent genetic advances and, specifically, genetic testing. A cohort of 97 college-age minority students, including 78 African Americans, participating in the Health Career Enhancement for Minorities Program (HCEM) at Case Western Reserve University were surveyed. Surveys were made available before and after the summer long course, which included five lectures on basic genetic principles and medical genetics.
Results: Both African American students and other minority students initially (questionnaire prior to HCEM course) had an overall positive view of genetic testing. The vast majority supported genetic testing for preventive care (95%) and presymptomatic detection of disease (88%) and agreed that it should be easily available (83%). However, several concerns were expressed as well, including fears about discrimination (68%), privacy (68%), that abortions will become more common (51%), and eugenics (37%). It is interesting that in the postcourse questionnaire, the percentages of positive views remained similar to those of the precourse survey, but the number of respondents expressing concerns increased.
Discussion: These results suggest that the minority students surveyed view many aspects of genetic testing and other advances favorably. However, these students expressed concerns about discrimination, privacy, and eugenics. These concerns were increased, not lessened, by exposure to genetics education. One possible explanation for this observation is that the students had a greater understanding of the issues regarding genetic testing after the HCEM lectures and discussion. Of note, there was a greater negative response toward genetic screening programs among the African American students compared with the non-African American minority students. This suggests that the negative attitudes of African Americans toward biomedical research do extend to some aspects of genetics and that educational programs must be designed and implemented if this community is going to receive the maximum benefits of this advancing technology.