Purpose: To assess primary care physicians' and psychiatrists' knowledge of genetics and genetic tests and the factors associated with differences in these physicians' knowledge.
Method: Questionnaires were mailed in 1991 to 1,795 primary care physicians (family physicians, internists, pediatricians, obstetrician-gynecologists) and psychiatrists who had graduated from medical school between 1950 and 1985 (67.6% of the sample had graduated after 1970) and who were members of professional societies. The questions elicited demographic and practice characteristics as well as knowledge of genetics concepts and facts and awareness of the availability of genetic tests. To validate the questionnaire, 360 medical geneticists and genetic counselors received questionnaires. Statistical analysis involved arc-sine function transformation, t-tests, analyses of variance, F-tests, Tukey's HSD, and stepwise multiple regression.
Results: A total of 1,140 (64.8%) of the non-geneticist physicians responded. They correctly answered an average of 73.9%, SD, 13.9%, of the knowledge items, compared with 94.6%, SD, 4.2%, for the genetics professionals (p < .001). The most significant predictors of knowledge were recency of graduation from medical school and practicing in primary care specialties in which exposure to genetics problems is likely. Other significant predictors (from most to least important) were graduation from a U.S. medical school, willingness to adopt a new predictive test before it becomes standard practice, not using pharmaceutical companies as a source of information about new medical practices, and taking a required genetics course in medical school.
Conclusions: The results suggest that knowledge of genetics and genetic tests is increasing among physicians, particularly among more recent graduates and physicians who are exposed to genetics problems in their practices, but deficiencies remain. Although a medical school course in genetics may improve knowledge, it is not sufficient. Greater emphasis is needed at all levels of medical education to reduce the chance of physician error as more genetic tests become available.