Citizens claiming racial diversity increased by 276% in the 2020 census, leading experts to wonder if racial diversity is increasing or if people are simply electing to identify as such and how this trend will affect healthcare
Once again, we see another unexpected consequence to expanded DNA testing done by consumers for their own interests and needs. As NPR recently reported in “The Census Has Revealed a More Multiracial US. One Reason? Cheaper DNA Tests,” the growing trend of ordering low-cost direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing to identify cultural heritage (where a family came from) and genealogy (to connect with extant family members) has educated healthcare consumers more about their cultural roots.
Such knowledge, NPR speculates, is allowing people to complete their census survey with more accurate “heritage” classifications.
How does this affect clinical laboratories? As Dark Daily covered in “Popularity of Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Tests Still Growing, Regardless of Concerns from Provider and Privacy Organizations,” popularity of at-home testing—including DNA testing—coupled with demand for increasingly personalized medicine (PM) in healthcare, will likely change the types of test orders medical laboratories receive from physicians.
What Did the 2020 Census Show?
The last US census showed an interesting change compared to previous census surveys. More Americans identified themselves as racially diverse than in previous censuses. Scientists in multiple specialty areas—including demographics, sociology, genetics, and more—are asking why.
According to federal Census Bureau data, in the most recent census, people who identify as more than one race rose by 276%! Scientists are only just beginning to hypothesize the reasons for this increase, but three potential factors, NPR reported, have emerged:
- More children are being born to parents who identify with racial groups that are different from one another.
- In 2017, the federal government made minor changes to how the census asked questions about race and in how those answers were categorized.
- People are reconsidering what they want the government to know about their identities, according to Duke University Press.
The increased incidence of DNA testing for cultural heritage may be an additional factor in the different ways people identified themselves during the census, driving its popularity, NPR noted. More people are purchasing at-home DNA tests to learn where their ancestors lived and came from, and their family’s genealogy.
“Exactly how big of an effect these tests had on census results is difficult to pin down,” NPR reported. “But many researchers agree that as the cost of at-home kits fell in recent years, they have helped shape an increasing share of the country’s ever-changing ideas about the social construct that is race.”
How the Census Alters Government Policy
Pew Research noted that, although only about 16% of Americans have taken an ancestry DNA test, the marketing efforts of “companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which operates the AncestryDNA service, should not be underestimated,” NPR reported. They have a wide reach, and those efforts could be impacting how people think about race and ethnic identity.
For most of human history, social experience and contemporary family history have been the drivers of how people identified themselves. However, low-cost DTC genetic testing may be changing that.
One concern that sociologists and demographers have about this trend is that the US census is an important tool in policy, civil rights protections, and even how researchers measure things like healthcare access disparities.
“You’re going to have a lot more people who are not part of marginalized groups in terms of their social experiences claiming to be part of marginalized groups. When it comes to understanding discrimination or inequality, we’re going have very inaccurate estimates,” says Wendy Roth, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, told NPR.
Cherry-picking One’s Racial Identity
In “Genetic Options: The Impact of Genetic Ancestry Testing on Consumers’ Racial and Ethnic Identities,” published in the American Journal of Sociology, Roth and her fellow researchers theorized that DTC at-home DNA test-takers do not accept the results fully, but rather choose based on their identity aspirations and social appraisals.
They developed the “genetic options” theory, “to account for how genetic ancestry tests influence consumers’ ethnic and racial identities.” They wrote, “The rapid growth of genetic ancestry testing has brought concerns that these tests will transform consumers’ racial and ethnic identities, producing “geneticized” identities determined by genetic knowledge.”
However, a more healthcare-related motivation for taking a DTC DNA test is to learn about one’s potential risks for familial chronic health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, etc.
In “With Consumer Demand for Ancestry and Genealogy Genetic Tests Waning, Leading Genomics Companies are Investigating Ways to Commercialize the Aggregated Genetics Data They Have Collected,” Dark Daily noted that, faced with lagging sales and employee layoffs, genomics companies in the genealogy DNA testing market are shifting their focus to the healthcare aspects of the consumer genomics data they have already compiled and aggregated.
According to Joe Grzymski, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at Renown Health and Associate Research Professor of Computational Biology at Desert Research Institute, a research campus of the University of Nevada Reno, the consumer market is going to become more integrated into the healthcare experience.
“Whether that occurs through your primary care doctor, your large integrated health network, or your payor, I think there will be profound changes in society’s tolerance for using genetics for prevention,” he told GenomeWeb.
Regardless, as Dark Daily reported in 2020, sales of genetic tests from Ancestry and 23andMe show the market is cooling. Thus, with less than 20% of the population having taken DNA tests, and with sales slowing, genetics testing may not affect responses on the next US census, which is scheduled for April 1, 2030.
In the meantime, clinical laboratory managers should recognize how and why more consumers are interested in ordering their own medical laboratory tests and incorporate this trend into their lab’s strategic planning.