R Harris, B Lane, H Harris, P Williamson, J Dodge, B Modell, B Ponder, C Rodeck, E Alberman
Br J Obstet Gynaecol
OBJECTIVES: To assess genetic counselling by non-geneticists and to improve clinical practice. DESIGN: National retrospective review of casenotes. SETTING: Antenatal, paediatric, medical, and surgical units. SAMPLE: 1293 genetic events were identified, involving potentially avoidable cases of Down's syndrome, neural tube defect, cystic fibrosis, beta thalassaemia major and late onset medullary carcinoma of the thyroid (multiple endocrine neoplasia). Notes were available for review in 888 (69%) of these cases. OUTCOMES: Documented counselling, offers of relevant genetic screening and prenatal diagnosis. RESULTS: Clinical audit was frustrated by poor quality hospital records lacking evidence of counselling. Non-geneticist clinicians concentrate on the management of disease, and may overlook the need for counselling and recording data which patients will later need for decisions about reproduction or disease prevention. Counselling, screening and prenatal diagnosis were sometimes impossible because of late booking in pregnancy, or because of delayed diagnosis of an earlier affected child with cystic fibrosis. There are marked regional inequalities of access to genetic services, particularly for minority ethnic groups with increased risks of thalassaemia. Although patients were selected for this enquiry because they had known high risks of genetic disorders, on average less than half were referred to medical geneticists. General recommendations relevant for improvement of care for patients and families with medical genetic needs and those specific for each disorder are given. CONCLUSIONS: Assessment of the quality of genetic care becomes increasingly important as genetic counselling spreads beyond the narrow confines of specialist genetic services. Even though the events studied in this enquiry largely occurred between 1991 and 1995, there is little reason to believe that clinicians in general have become markedly better trained in medical genetics. The General Medical Council and Medical Royal Colleges should urgently consider the need for a national policy for improving undergraduate and postgraduate medical, nursing and midwifery education in genetics. Commissioners of clinical services should require that genetic management be at least as well-documented as surgical operations, drug records and informed consent, perhaps by using a nationally agreed pro-forma for prenatal diagnosis. Regular audit of counselling provided by non-geneticists is necessary to confirm that clinical improvements are occurring and standards are being met. The Confidential Enquiry provides data for a systematic approach to clinical governance of genetics in all specialities. This sets the scene for multi-speciality NHS genetic services capable of giving patients greater consistency both in access and in quality.