BACKGROUND: In response to the isolation of the BRCA1 gene, a breast-ovarian cancer-susceptibility gene, biotechnology companies are already marketing genetic tests to health care providers and to the public. Initial studies indicate interest in BRCA1 testing in the general public and in populations at high risk. However, the optimal strategies for educating and counseling individuals have yet to be determined.
PURPOSE: Our goal was to evaluate the impact of alternate strategies for pretest education and counseling on decision-making regarding BRCA1 testing among women at low to moderate risk who have a family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer.
METHODS: A randomized trial design was used to evaluate the effects of education only (educational approach) and education plus counseling (counseling approach), as compared with a waiting-list (control) condition (n = 400 for all groups combined). The educational approach reviewed information about personal risk factors, inheritance of cancer susceptibility, the benefits, limitations, and risks of BRCA1 testing, and cancer screening and prevention options. The counseling approach included this information, as well as a personalized discussion of experiences with cancer in the family and the potential psychological and social impact of testing. Data on knowledge of inherited cancer and BRCA1 test characteristics, perceived risk, perceived benefits, limitations and risks of BRCA1 testing, and testing intentions were collected by use of structured telephone interviews at baseline and at 1-month follow-up. Provision of a blood sample for future testing served as a proxy measure of intention to be tested (in the education and counseling arms of the study). The effects of intervention group on study outcomes were evaluated by use of hierarchical linear regression modeling and logistic regression modeling (for the blood sample outcome). All P values are for two-sided tests.
RESULTS: The educational and counseling approaches both led to significant increases in knowledge, relative to the control condition (P < .001 for both). The counseling approach, but not the educational approach, was superior to the control condition in producing significant increases in perceived limitations and risks of BRCA1 testing (P < .01) and decreases in perceived benefits (P < .05). However, neither approach produced changes in intentions to have BRCA1 testing. Prior to and following both education only and education plus counseling, approximately one half of the participants stated that they intended to be tested; after the session, 52% provided a blood sample.
CONCLUSIONS: Standard educational approaches may be equally effective as expanded counseling approaches in enhancing knowledge. Since knowledge is a key aspect of medical decision-making, standard education may be adequate in situations where genetic testing must be streamlined. On the other hand, it has been argued that optimal decision-making requires not only knowledge, but also a reasoned evaluation of the positive and negative consequences of alternate decisions. Although the counseling approach is more likely to achieve this goal, it may not diminish interest in testing, even among women at low to moderate risk. Future research should focus on the merits of these alternate approaches for subgroups of individuals with different backgrounds who are being counseled in the variety of settings where BRCA1 testing is likely to be offered.