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European genetic testing guidelines recommend that healthcare professionals (HCPs) discuss the familial implications of any test with a patient and offer written material to help them share the information with family members. Giving patients these "family letters" to alert any relatives of their risk has become part of standard practice and has gone relatively unquestioned over the years. Communication with at-risk relatives will become an increasingly pressing issue as mainstream and routine practice incorporates broad genome tests and as the number of findings potentially relevant to relatives increases. This study therefore explores problems around the use of family letters to communicate about genetic risk. We conducted 16 focus groups with 80 HCPs, and 35 interviews with patients, recruited from across the UK. Data were analyzed thematically and we constructed four themes: 1) HCPs writing family letters: how to write them and why?, 2) Patients' issues with handing out family letters, 3) Dissemination becomes an uncontrolled form of communication, and 4) When the relative has the letter, is the patient's and HCP's duty discharged? We conclude by suggesting alternative and supplementary methods of communication, for example through digital tools, and propose that in comparison to communication by family letter, direct contact by HCPs might be a more appropriate and successful option.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of genetic counseling

Publication Date





689 - 701


Clinical Ethics and Law, Southampton General Hospital, South Academic Block, University of Southampton, Room AB 203, MP 801, Tremona Road, Southampton, SO16 6YD, 02381 205082, UK.


Humans, Genetic Predisposition to Disease, Focus Groups, Risk Factors, Communication, Family, Qualitative Research, Health Personnel, Female, Male, Genetic Testing