Beliefs about God and nature can affect how patients and their families respond to news about their diagnosis, according to Penn State health communication researchers.
People affected with genetic or chromosomal disorders, such as Down syndrome, tend to communicate differently about their illness based on their religious beliefs and uncertainty of genetics' role in health.
The researchers, who reported their findings in the journal Health Communication, surveyed 541 family members or patients diagnosed with Down syndrome and other genetic disorders. Participants were asked questions about their diagnosis, beliefs on genetics, personal behavior, religious and social life and how they manage their uncertainty about living with the condition.
The researchers also asked participants several questions to determine what they know about the causes of genetic disease, lifestyle impacts on health and whether a higher power or attending a house of worship could affect genes.
Researchers found people tended to fall into four groups: Individuals who are not sure what role personal behaviors, religious faith and social networks play in genetics and health; those who know how personal behavior affects genetics; those who believe only genes determine their health; and those who believe that behavior, faith and support can affect genes and health.
Overall, they determined the fourth group – people who believe faith and behavior can affect health – had the most balanced understanding of genetics and health, but also felt the most uncertainty about living with the condition. By contrast, people who believe genetics are the dominant predictor of their health wanted to communicate more about their condition.
Understanding how people might respond to a diagnosis can help health care providers respond better to a patient’s needs, said lead researcher Roxanne Parrott.
"What we can do is design programs for genetic counselors that suggest different scripts for communicating based on understanding how people might respond to a diagnosis," Parrott said. “A significant number of people are affected by these conditions and it's important to remember that communicating with patients and family is not always a simple thing."