Genetic counselors help people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease. This process integrates interpretation of family and medical histories to assess the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence; education about inheritance, testing, management, prevention, resources and research; and counseling to promote informed choices and adaptation to the risk or condition.
Genetic counselors act as liaisons between doctors and patients. They are health professionals with specialized graduate degrees and experience in the areas of medical genetics and counseling. Most enter the field from a variety of disciplines, including biology, genetics, nursing, psychology, public health and social work. Because expert and private handling of genetic recurrence information is essential, practitioners generally are expected to seek certification by the American Board of Genetic Counseling.
Genetic counseling can occur in a number of different situations: (1) before conception, when one or both parents are carriers of a certain trait; (2) during pregnancy, if an abnormality is noted on an ultrasound or if the woman will be 35 years old or older at delivery; (3) after birth, if a birth defect is detected; (4) during childhood, if the child has developmental delay; and (5) during adulthood, for adult-onset genetic conditions such as Huntington’s disease or hereditary cancer syndromes.
Genetic counselors also provide supportive counseling to families, serve as patient advocates and refer individuals and families to community or state support services. They serve as educators and resource people for other health care professionals and for the general public. Most GCs work as a member of a health care team in traditional environments, such as university medical centers, laboratory settings and private practice. However, GCs can be found in such diverse environments as pharmaceutical companies, state and federal departments of health and health consulting. Some counselors also work in administrative capacities. Many engage in research activities related to the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling. Areas of specialization include prenatal, pediatric genetics, cancer genetics, adult genetics, neurogenetics, public health and molecular/cytogenetic testing.
The future of the genetic counseling profession is strengthened by advances in genomics, including the completion of the Human Genome Project. The expansion of genomic medicine demands experts who can assess and communicate health risks and assist health care professionals and patients with decision-making regarding testing and treatment options. Genetic counselors are ideally equipped to respond to these demands and will be a primary resource as society adapts to the changes brought about by this new scientific era.<
Currently, numerous training programs offer master’s degrees in genetic counseling in the United States. Programs also are offered in Canada, Australia, England and South Africa. Coursework typically includes clinical genetics, population genetics, cytogenetics, and molecular genetics coupled with psychosocial theory, ethics and counseling techniques. Clinical placement in American Board of Genetic Counseling-approved medical genetics centers is an integral part of the degree requirements. Additional programs accept nurses seeking postgraduate degrees with specialty training in genetics.
Certification currently is not required in order for one to be a practicing genetic counselor, though the majority of counselors practicing today are board-certified. Licensure is becoming available in a growing number of states and often is dependent on board certification. Certification is available by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. Requirements include documentation of the following: a graduate degree in genetic counseling, clinical experience in an ABGC-approved training site or sites, a log book of 50 supervised cases and successful completion of both the general and specialty certification examination. Currently, all graduates are expected to achieve certification within three or four years after graduation or further training will be required.
The median annual wage for genetic counselors was $72,090 in May 2015. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more that that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,760, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $109,650.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics