The Small Firm for Big Cases

Should Doctors Warn Patients of Hereditary Risks?  

Hereditary risks, also known as genetic risks, are diseases or medical conditions that can be passed down from biological parents to their children. Individuals with genetic variants may have a higher risk of getting certain diseases than the average person. Knowing a patient’s hereditary risks can help predict and potentially prevent diseases in the future. A doctor generally has an ethical duty to warn third parties of hereditary risks discovered when treating a patient. Failure to do so may constitute medical malpractice in Philadelphia.

What Are Common Examples of Hereditary Risks?

If a patient has a hereditary risk, it means he or she has a higher likelihood of developing a specific genetic disorder or carrying a disease-associated mutation due to his or her family history. Genetic risks are associated with some of the top causes of death in the United States, including cancer and heart disease. Examples of common diseases or chronic medical conditions associated with hereditary risks include:

  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Birth defects
  • Cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Dementia
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Single gene disorders

If a certain hereditary risk runs in a patient’s family, the genes could be passed down to future generations. The amount of hereditary risk sometimes can be estimated by a doctor based on the inheritance pattern. In certain situations, if the patient’s relatives are at risk of a suspected genetic condition, the doctor has an ethical responsibility to warn the patient of their family member’s elevated risk.

Does a Physician Have a Duty to Warn Third Parties of Genetic Risks?

It is becoming increasingly easy to obtain hereditary and genetic information using modern medical technology. As more and more patients choose to obtain hereditary information about themselves, a doctor faces an ethical dilemma in deciding whether the duty of medical confidentiality prevents sharing genetic risks with other family members who may be affected.

Traditionally, medical providers have a duty to keep information gathered in the care of a patient strictly confidential, meaning the doctor cannot share this information with others without the patient’s consent. However, there are some exceptions for genetic or hereditary risks. According to the Code of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association, a patient’s genetic counseling must include implications of hereditary information for biological relatives of the patient.

Since the mid-1990’s, some courts have recognized a legal duty for doctors to warn not only the patient but the patient’s immediate blood relatives of hereditary risks. This duty of care stands regardless of the duty of confidentiality between a patient and physician. The Code of Medical Ethics lists circumstances under which a physician is expected to notify a patient who is considering genetic testing of the possibility of biological relatives being notified that this information is available.

What if a Physician Fails to Warn of Heredity Risks?

The failure to warn family members about discovered hereditary risks has resulted in lawsuits against physicians in the United States. If a physician falls short of his or her ethical duty to warn of hereditary risks, he or she may be held accountable for related harm suffered by a family member. A successful lawsuit could result in financial compensation for a victim’s related medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other damages.

This is a complicated area of law with rules that are still developing. Each case is unique. Discuss a potential medical malpractice claim for failure to warn of hereditary risks with an attorney at Youman & Caputo for more information. We offer free case consultations in Pennsylvania.