1. Science
July 3, 2017

Why genetic testing could become the DNA of insurance

By Ronan McCaughey

Would you share your genetic test results with a life or health insurer if it meant a cheaper policy in return?

It’s an issue increasingly on the minds of insurers because access to genetic data would allow them to offer more personalised policies, potentially lower costs and assess policyholder risk much better.

And let’s not forget, life and health insurers already have access to significant data on consumers’ medical history, as well as their lifestyle and activity patterns generated by wearable technology and fitness trackers.

Ross Campbell, life and health chief underwriter, research & development at Gen Re, recently wrote for Life Insurance International explaining that genomics, the field of molecular biology focused on mapping the genome, is at the forefront of a technological revolution in bio-medicine and healthcare.

So far, Campbell says the UK insurance industry has voluntarily agreed not to use much of the data that is available.

He explains that when introduced the moratorium acknowledged contemporary concerns that DNA sequencing would allow abnormal patterns in specific genes to be recognised and potentially misused by insurers.

Campbell says:

We now understand medical predictability can only rarely, such as Huntingtons Disease, be based on DNA alone, other risk factors may be more important – as an example the combination effect of genes, nutrition, and exercise. But while exercise is linked with genetics, the relationship is too fragile for the results of direct-to-consumer genetic tests to be useful in making lifestyle recommendations.

He adds: “Our collective understanding of genomics and its potential relevance to risk assessments has also improved significantly in recent years, and it offers the opportunity for insurers to do things better – with individuals’ consent.”

In October 2016 life reinsurer, Gen Re, said its survey of attitudes to genetic testing found that most people are open to being tested for genetic conditions, believing that it will help them to manage their health better.

Many indicated they would have a genetic test if it would give them a better understanding of any health risks they might face, mostly to allow early medical intervention.

Some wanted to understand what risks they might pass along to their children, while others would have a test if there was a good reason such as family history or existing illness.

Those who didn’t want to be tested were reluctant about being burdened with knowledge about diseases about which they believe they could do nothing; they felt a test was unlikely to be useful in the absence of a clinical problem or history of genetic conditions in their relatives.

In the UK, at least, it is highly unlikely that life insurers will start using genetic data to set the level of cover anytime soon.

But rapid strides being made by the industry to digitalise and embrace data analytics means it’s not a question of if, but rather when, life and health insurers lobby the government and public to use genetic testing.

Decoding people’s DNA will be the next frontier for insurance.

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