What Is Genetic Counseling?
By Indeed Editorial Team
Updated March 9, 2021 | Published February 25, 2020
Updated March 9, 2021
Published February 25, 2020
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
Genetic counseling assesses families and individuals' risk for inherited health disorders. It uses family and medical histories of patients to measure their risk levels and recommend ways to adapt or reduce the chances of developing genetic disorders. If you are interested in pursuing this career path, it is essential to know the prerequisites, responsibilities and salary expectations.
In this article, we discuss the duties of a genetic counselor, qualifications and how to become a professional in this field.
What is genetic counseling?
Genetic counseling provides information related to how inherited conditions might affect a patient or family. A health professional who specializes in genetic counseling is called a genetic counselor. A genetic counselor or other similarly qualified healthcare professional collects a family's medical and health history. They use this information to assess a patient or family member's chances of being affected with a genetic disorder.
Using a patient's personal and family health records, the genetic counselor can recommend a genetic test to confirm an inherited health problem. The counselor can also advise patients on preventative or adaptive measures based on their current situation.
Patients who need genetic counseling are often referred by general physicians, oncologists and obstetricians. The profession requires advanced genetic and medical education and at least a master's degree. Genetic counselors play a vital role in the healthcare sector because their work guides other professionals to deliver quality treatment for patients.
What does a genetic counselor do?
The primary duty of genetic counselors is to assess an individual or family for a variety of genetic disorders. This information can help patients and their healthcare providers to prevent inherited conditions or adapt to the physiological, medical and cultural implications of these conditions.
Genetic counselors use their knowledge of genetics to identify inherited disorders or the risk of such issues in patients or their family members. They can use family history to assess the chances of an unborn baby having conditions such as Down syndrome or sickle cell anemia. Genetic counselors can also measure the risk for an adult to develop genetic diseases such as certain cancers. Here are examples of the duties of genetic counselors:
Conduct patient interviews to collect vital information regarding personal and family medical and health histories.
Analyze genetic information to determine the risk levels of patients or families to specific genetic conditions.
Create comprehensive consultation reports that explain genetic terms and concepts to patients and health care providers to guide treatment plans.
Recommend testing options, benefits, risks and limitations of treatments to patients, families and their health care providers.
Help patients and family members understand the impact of genetic disorders on physical, social, cultural, health, personal and familial relationships.
Advise patients and families on treatment options, education and coping mechanisms for genetic conditions.
Serve as a source of expert genetic information for patients, families and other health care professionals.
Continuous education to upgrade skills, stay relevant and deliver excellent service and support to patients, family members and other healthcare professionals.
Participate in conferences, studies, professional associations and other industry events to network, upgrade skills and learn about new developments in genetic counseling.
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How to become a genetic counselor
Becoming a genetic counselor involves extensive training and experience in genetics, genomics and counseling. This requires expert scientific knowledge to assess genetic information and identify specific gene-related health issues. They also need exceptional communication skills to explain complex genetic concepts in an accessible and reassuring way to patients, families and other health professionals.
Genetic counselors are trained to counsel and educate patients on their risk levels and treatment options. The profession often requires practitioners to have a master's degree in genetics or genetic counseling. Here are the steps to become a genetic counselor:
Complete a bachelor's degree.
Earn a master's degree in genetic counseling.
1. Complete a bachelor's degree
The first step toward becoming a genetic counselor is to obtain a bachelor's degree in a related science field such as genetics or genomics. Students can also enroll in programs that combine genetics with genomics, biotechnology, biomedical science, microbiology and related studies. Common courses include cell biology, population genetics, comparative genetics and genetic techniques.
2. Earn a master's degree in genetic counseling
The minimum educational requirement for genetic counselors is a master's degree. The next step is to obtain a postgraduate degree in genetic counseling. You can access these programs in medical schools with a degree that culminates with a master of science in genetic counseling, these graduate programs typically taking two years.
Related: Learn About Being a Pediatrician
3. Training experience
During your M.S. program, you will be exposed to a variety of training and clinical environments to gain experience and prepare for real-world situations. The program includes extensive hands-on training, advocacy, clinical internships and rotations to equip you with vital skills and expertise. Based on your specialization, you can expect to study courses such as genetic testing, prenatal genetics, clinical genetics or cancer genetics in your master's program.
After completing your master's program, you need to get certification to qualify for state licensure and employment. To become certified as a genetic counselor, professionals in the United States must pass an exam conducted by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC).
The next step after earning your certification is licensure. The licensing requirements vary by state. Some places do not require genetic counselors to be licensed to practice, though many hospitals prefer genetic counselors who have ABGC certification.
In states with obligatory licensure for genetic counselors, you need an ABGC license to practice. Check your state's medical board for more information about the specific license requirements for genetic counselors.
6. Continuing education
The American Board of Genetic Counseling requires genetic counselors to renew their board certifications after every five or 10 years. The genetic counselors must earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs) and keep their professional profiles up to date to qualify for recertification. This ensures that the professionals keep abreast of current regulations, policies, latest developments and innovations in their industry.
For further insight into the field of genetic counseling, refer to this list of frequently asked questions with answers provided:
1. What is the average salary of a genetic counselor?
Genetic counselors can earn good pay with extensive experience and qualifications. Factors that determine compensation include education, training, employer, specialty, region and work responsibilities.
2. What are the specializations of genetic counseling?
Genetic counselors can specialize in a broad range of fields including:
Assisted Reproductive Therapy (ART)/Infertility genetics: Focuses on genetic causes of infertility in male and female and the application of genetic technologies in assisted reproduction
Cancer genetics: Focuses on the study of familial and hereditary cancer such as ovarian, breast and colon cancers
Cardiovascular genetics: Focuses on the study of hereditary cardiovascular disorders
Cystic fibrosis genetics: Focuses on cystic fibrosis genetics including classic cystic fibrosis, CFTR-related metabolic syndrome and related disorders
Fetal intervention and therapy genetics (FIT): An aspect of prenatal genetic that deals with pregnancies diagnosed with fetal abnormalities
Hematology genetics: Focuses on genetic and environmental factors that affect non-cancerous hematological conditions such as hemoglobinopathies and bleeding disorders
Metabolic genetics: Deals with the diagnosis, treatment and long-term assessment of patients born with metabolic conditions such as glycogen storage disorders
Neurogenetics: Focuses on hereditary neurological conditions such as dementia, neuropathy, muscular dystrophy and brain malformations
Pediatric and clinical genetics: Focuses on studying genetic conditions in children and adults
Personalized medicine genetics: Focuses on assessing an individual's risk for complex diseases by studying behavioral, environmental, medical and family influences
Prenatal genetics: Focuses on the potential risk of genetic disorders such as birth defects to a current or future pregnancy
3. What is the work environment of genetic counselors?
The typical genetic counselor works full time in a clinical setting. They have standard work schedules but this can vary based on the employer.
4. What are the essential skills for a genetic counselor?
A successful genetic counselor will have the following skills:
Critical thinking skills: Genetic counselors will use complex laboratory results to assess and identify a patient's condition, advise the person or family on risks, treatment options and provide reassurances.
Communication: Genetic counselors require excellent communication skills to explain complex genetic information in simple language patients and other health professionals can understand. They also need professional writing skills to explain lab findings and treatment recommendations to other healthcare providers.
Empathy: While genetic counselors must always be professional, they also have to be empathic and compassionate when explaining their findings to patients and families.
Decision-making: Genetic counselors will have excellent decision-making skills to choose the best way to communicate their findings to patients while reassuring them.
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