What is Genetic Counseling?
Genetic counseling is the process of helping 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.
- Counseling to promote informed choices and adaptation to the risk or condition.
National Society of Genetic Counselors, 2005
Who are Genetic Counselors?
Genetic counselors 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. (see "How to Become a Genetic Counselor").
Genetic counselors work as members of a health care team, providing information and support to families who have members with birth defects or genetic disorders and to families who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions. They identify families at risk, investigate the problem present in the family, interpret information about the disorder, analyze inheritance patterns and risks of recurrence and review available options with the family.
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. Some counselors also work in administrative capacities. Many engage in research activities related to the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling. (Adopted by the National Society of Genetic Counselors, Inc. 1983)
Does NSGC certify genetic counselors?
No. A separate entity, the American Board of Genetic Counseling, certifies genetic counselors and accredits genetic counseling training programs. The National Society of Genetic Counselors is the professional membership association for the genetic counseling profession. Because we offer educational programs, it would be considered a conflict of interest for us to administer the Board exams.
Do genetic counselors do gene therapy or cloning?
Genetic counseling is a process in which a genetic counselor educates families or individuals about their risk of passing on a genetic predisposition for certain disorders to future generations or of having inherited a disorder, themselves. Gene therapy is the highly technical science of altering genes. For example, genetic technologies have recently led to a new treatment for cystic fibrosis using gene therapy. Genetic counselors may discuss gene therapy in specific disorders, but they are not the professionals who conduct research or carry out the process. Genetic counselors are not involved in the process of cloning.
How do I find a genetic counselor near me?
An extensive listing of genetic counselors in the USA and around the world can be found at this website through the Find A Genetic Counselor tool.
This is my first visit to a genetic counselor. What can I expect from this visit?
Genetic counselors frequently speak to clients about complex scientific and emotional topics. Usually the issues involve genetic conditions or birth defects or possibilities of those things occurring. The topic you bring to the genetic counseling session may determine the content of the discussion however you can expect the genetic counselor to have specialized knowledge and be able to answer your questions, maybe even to anticipate some of your questions. Often, the genetic counselor acts as an interpreter for the medical information and a support person if the information turns out to be stressful.
Your genetic counselor may ask extensive questions about your family history, as this is the way we understand inheritance patterns. It might be helpful for you to use the opportunity of a pending genetic counseling visit to research the health and medical conditions of extended relatives.
There are so many possibilities to consider. Will the genetic counselor tell me what to do?
No, a genetic counselor's primary concern is helping the client reach decisions which are appropriate for the client, or help a client adjust to complex information, uncertainties or new diagnoses. You may benefit from the genetic counselor's experience with other persons in an indirect way, however you should not expect that what is right for another client will be right for you.
It sounds complicated. How can I remember all the technical details?
Your genetic counselor usually has access to brochures, booklists and summaries about the technical information that was discussed at your session. You may get a written summary or this may be sent to your medical records. Confidentiality is a high priority for genetic counselors and your information should remain private.
How can I obtain information about becoming a genetic counselor?
Check out Career Information on this web site. You may also want to check out our listing of genetic counseling training programs in the USA and Canada.