The company says the service will help people manage their health, but concerns have been raised about how the information can be used to discriminate against people.
Of particular concern are the ramifications for people applying for life insurance, which NIB also sells.
The letter said customers did not have to give the results of genetic testing to NIB, but the fine print said they may have to give the information to life insurance or superannuation providers.
In Australia, a person applying for life insurance who has had a genetic test can be forced to give the results to the insurance company, including how likely they are to contract various genetic diseases.
The Investment and Financial Services Association’s (IFSA) guidelines on genetic testing say the results might lead to higher premiums, shorter periods of cover, the exclusion of some medical conditions or a refusal of cover.
Associate Professor Christine Barlow-Stewart from the New South Wales Centre for Genetic Education says she is worried about the accuracy of genetic tests.
“We’re not sure, even as experts, of the reliability of the interpretation of the data that comes out,” she said.
“The risks that are given to you, there are still some questions as to whether we can really understand what that means. I think it is far too early for these tests to be given in such a way.”
NO LOCAL TESTING
NIB has offered its customers testing through an American company called Navigenics. The service will cost $AUS499 instead of the usual $AUS999.
Professor Barlow-Stewart says it is important for people to realise that the technology is at such an early stage that overseas companies have to be used instead of local testing.
The chief executive of NIB, Mark Fitzgibbon, said in the letter to customers that he had used genetic testing himself as a way of preparing for possible health problems in the future.
He says while life insurance premiums might go up for some people, others might enjoy lower premiums if they discover they are at a low risk.
“All this is doing is giving them [life insurance companies] better information about the health profile of people,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“For everyone who might have to pay more because of their genetic predisposition there will be people who will have to pay less.”
Both Mr Fitzgibbon and Professor Barlow-Stewart agree that genetic testing, if reliable, can help people plan for their future.
“This genetic testing service can help you determine your risk of developing preventable illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, heart attack and certain cancers,” Mr Fitzgibbon wrote.
“Importantly, this knowledge can help you better prevent the possible onset of such illnesses.”