Before I became interested in genetic counseling, I honestly had no idea what it was. I was interested in genetics but had mainly taken college classes related to genetics and worked in a research lab. I thought the only healthcare provider who specialized in genetics were geneticists, who have medical degrees and then years of residency to become experts in the field of genetics. For me, I wasn’t interested in doing that much schooling. However, after reading an article in a magazine that highlighted genetic counseling and what it is, I realized how important this profession can be. After pursuing a degree in genetic counseling and working several years as a genetic counselor, I can now understand even more the importance of having a healthcare provider that specializes in the complicated field of genetics.
Genetic Counselors obtain master’s degrees in genetic counseling and become board certified within the first few years of working in the field. A genetic counselor is trained in medical genetics and psychosocial skills. In a typical genetic counseling session, a genetic counselor will take a personal and family medical history, review basic concepts of genetics, and determine and explain which genetic testing is appropriate. The genetic testing process can be complicated, and results can be difficult to understand. A genetic counselor can help navigate this process and explain results. In addition, genetic counselors are trained to help in the decision-making process and work through the emotional process of genetic testing.
I would like to explain in a little more detail why genetic counseling is so important:
Assess your personal and family medical history: Genetic counselors are trained to look at a personal and family history and determine if there is an inherited condition in your family. In addition, sometimes genetic conditions won’t become clear in your family until the big picture is analyzed. For example, there are different inheritance patterns for some genetic conditions that may not be noticed initially but will become apparent after drawing a family tree and compiling information about each family member.
Explain basic genetic concepts: Genetics can be complicated, and especially for patients who have not had to talk or learn about genetic concepts for a long time. Genetic counselors will review what chromosomes, genes, and DNA are and explain in simple terms what the genetic condition is and what causes the condition.
Determine appropriate genetic testing: There are a lot of genetic tests available and many different genetic testing labs to choose from. Genetic counselors are trained to know which test is appropriate, what the cost of that test will be and if insurance will cover and discuss possible financial assistance options.
Interpret genetic testing results: Even though results may seem self-explanatory, there are not just positive and negative results. In addition, a negative result isn’t necessarily the last step or means you do not have a risk. A genetic counselor can help tell you what your result means for you and your family.
Help patients in the decision-making process: Sometimes it can be difficult to decide if you want to pursue genetic testing. There can be emotional challenges, implications for family members, financial difficulties, and deciding if you want to know about your genetics. Genetic counselors are also trained to help patients decide what’s best for themselves and their family.
Help physicians navigate complex aspects of genetics and testing: While physicians have a general knowledge of genetics, they typically are not specialized in the specifics of genetics and genetic testing. A genetic counselor can work with your doctor to
navigate the process of genetic testing.
Provide information about recurrence / future risks and family planning options: For couples hoping to have more children, it can be very important to know what risks you may be passing on to your children. A genetic counselor can discuss the chances of a genetic condition occurring again in your family, or what genetic risks you may have in general.
Facilitate referrals to long-term resources and support organizations: Obtaining a diagnosis of a genetic condition can be hard and emotionally challenging. Genetic counselors can provide resources for you and connect you with support organizations.
If you are interested in pursuing genetic counseling or would like to discuss in more detail why genetic counseling is important, contact AT-GC to meet with a genetic counselor.