Inherited medullary thyroid cancer and the duty to warn: revisiting Pate v. Threlkel in light of HIPAA

Thyroid. 2005 Feb;15(2):140-5. doi: 10.1089/thy.2005.15.140.


Familial medullary thyroid cancer (FMTC) is one of the few autosomal dominant cancers for which genetic testing provides a clear medical indication for prophylactic and/or curative therapy, and for which prophylactic thyroidectomy, followed by thyroid hormone replacement, presents a relatively low morbidity risk. Medullary thyroid cancer (MTC) is a particularly aggressive type of thyroid cancer, and screening by traditional biochemical markers yields a high proportion of advanced stage diagnoses in individuals from FMTC families. This is particularly hazardous since there are no curative systemic treatments for MTC. Genetic testing for germline mutations of the RET proto-oncogene provides a reliable method of identifying at-risk family members in those FMTC families in which a mutation has been identified in the proband. Prophylactic thyroidectomy in such at-risk family members has significantly reduced the proportion of advanced stage MTC diagnoses in MTC families. Since a clear medical benefit exists for genetic testing in family members, and a clear danger to family members exists in the absence of genetic counseling, establishing genetic diagnosis as standard of care has critical legal and ethical implications for medical providers caring for probands and family members. The "duty to warn," reinforced by the courts in the legal case of Pate v. Threlkel, may override recent confidentiality legislation, known as the HIPAA Privacy Rules, which came into effect April 12, 2003.

Publication types

  • Legal Case

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Medullary / genetics*
  • Confidentiality / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Duty to Warn / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Family
  • Female
  • Florida
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease
  • Genetic Testing / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Proto-Oncogene Mas
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / genetics*
  • United States