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BMC Med Ethics. 2018 Jun 5;19(1):56. doi: 10.1186/s12910-018-0292-3.

Medicine, market and communication: ethical considerations in regard to persuasive communication in direct-to-consumer genetic testing services.

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Department of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, University Medical Center Göttingen, Humboldtallee 36, 37073, Göttingen, Germany.
Department of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine, University Medical Center Göttingen, Humboldtallee 36, 37073, Göttingen, Germany.



Commercial genetic testing offered over the internet, known as direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTC GT), currently is under ethical attack. A common critique aims at the limited validation of the tests as well as the risk of psycho-social stress or adaption of incorrect behavior by users triggered by misleading health information. Here, we examine in detail the specific role of advertising communication of DTC GT companies from a medical ethical perspective. Our argumentative analysis departs from the starting point that DTC GT operates at the intersection of two different contexts: medicine on the one hand and the market on the other. Both fields differ strongly with regard to their standards of communication practices and the underlying normative assumptions regarding autonomy and responsibility.


Following a short review of the ethical contexts of medical and commercial communication, we provide case examples for persuasive messages of DTC GT websites and briefly analyze their design with a multi-modal approach to illustrate some of their problematic implications.


We observe three main aspects in DTC GT advertising communication: (1) the use of material suggesting medical professional legitimacy as a trust-establishing tool, (2) the suggestion of empowerment as a benefit of using DTC GT services and (3) the narrative of responsibility as a persuasive appeal to a moral self-conception.


While strengthening and respecting the autonomy of a patient is the focus in medical communication, specifically genetic counselling, persuasive communication is the normal mode in marketing of consumer goods, presuming an autonomous, rational, independent consumer. This creates tension in the context of DTC GT regarding the expectation and normative assessment of communication strategies. Our analysis can even the ground for a better understanding of ethical problems associated with intersections of medical and commercial communication and point to perspectives of analysis of DTC GT advertising.


Advertising; Communication ethics; Direct-to-consumer genetic testing; Genetic Counselling; Persuasive communication

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