What Is a Genetics Counselor?

An Overview of a Career as a Genetics Counselor

Genetics counselor
Genetics counselors help people make important decisions about their health based upon genetic information.. Photo courtesy nullplus / iStockPhoto

If you have, or know someone who has, a genetic disease you may be wondering just what is a genetics counselor? 

As researchers learn more about genetic diseases, people have more access than ever to information about heritable illness. Today, pregnant women can opt for testing that can indicate whether their child might be born with an illness such as Down syndrome or Tay-Sachs disease. While such information is becoming increasingly available, some people wonder whether they truly want to know about potential risks and what they should do if they do find that they are susceptible to a particular disease.

Faced with such questions, many people turn to a genetics counselor for advice.

What Does a Genetics Counselor Do?

A genetics counselor is a professional who helps people make decisions based upon genetic information. For example, prospective parents might consult a genetics counselor to determine if they want to find out if their potential offspring might be at risk for being born with an inherited disorder. Genetics counselors also help people determine if they want to know their own risk of developing a genetic disease such as heart disease and breast cancer.

Genetics counselors also work alongside other health care professionals including doctors, geneticists, nurses and social workers. The goal is to help individuals and families make informed decisions about their health and to assist clients in finding the services that best serve their needs.

During a session with a client, a genetics counselor might:

  • Gather a family history including past health problems, surgeries and family illnesses
  • Explain how genetic disorders are passed down
  • Discuss risk factors and the likelihood that a particular condition will reoccur within a family
  • Recommend diagnostic tests
  • Explain the results of genetic tests
  • Discuss birth defects and describe environmental variables that can cause such problems
  • Explore treatment options
  • Counsel clients experiencing emotional distress
  • Refer clients to other health care professionals and community resources

In the past, genetic counselors primarily worked in prenatal areas. Today, we know more about the human genome than ever before, so it is possible to better determine a person's risk of developing a specific disease. People working in this field may also counsel people at risk of developing inherited diseases later in life such as breast cancer or heart disease. Genetics counselors are sometimes hired by pharmaceutical companies to help screen potential participants in clinical drug trials.

Who Needs a Genetics Counselor?

MedlinePlus suggests that there a number of different reasons to seek out genetic counseling, which include:

  • A family history of inherited health problems and disorders
  • Ultrasound or screening tests suggesting that a disorder may be present
  • Becoming pregnant after age 35
  • Already having a child with a genetic disorder
  • Suffering repeated miscarriage, stillbirth or death of a baby

Training and Educational Requirements for Genetic Counselors

To become a certified genetics counselor, you must have a minimum of a master's degree in genetics counseling from an accredited U.S. program. You must also pass examinations administered by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. As part of their training, students learn about inherited diseases, the types of tests available and preventative steps that people can take to minimize their risk. Prior to entering an accredited master's program, many students opt to earn undergraduate degrees in subjects such as psychology, biology, social work, public health, genetics or nursing.

Benefits of Being a Genetics Counselor

According to U.S. News and World Report, approximately 90 percent of genetic counselors are satisfied with their jobs. Helping people understand their options and explore their health care options can be very rewarding.

Downsides of Being a Genetics Counselor

In many cases, your clients may be facing very difficult and painful decisions, such as whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Counseling people in such situations can be rewarding, but it can also be very stressful and emotionally draining.

Promotions can be limited. Once you have become a counselor, you are likely to stay in the same position over the course of your career unless you choose to move into another position such as becoming a professor or pharmaceutical consultant.

References:

Genetics counseling. (2011). Medline Plus. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/geneticcounseling.html

Nemko, M. (2008, December 11). Best Careers 2009: Genetics Counselor. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved from http://money.usnews.com/money/careers/articles/2008/12/11/best-careers-2009-genetic-counselor

Genetics counselor salary. (2011). PayScale.com. Retrieved from http://www.payscale.com/research/US/Job=Genetic_Counselor/Salary

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