Before I even became a genetic counselor, I quickly realized that there are many people who don’t know what a genetic counselor is and what a genetic counselor does. That is why I would like to take this opportunity explain to you what genetic counseling means to me.
The National Society of Genetic Counselors defines genetic counselors as healthcare providers that “help people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.” This process integrates the following:
- 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.
There are many specialties within the genetic counseling field, most commonly prenatal, pediatrics, and cancer. Other specialties include fertility, cardiology, psychiatry, neurology and ophthalmology. Within each specialty, genetic counselors see patients with a variety of unique needs. For example, a prenatal genetic counselor can counsel pregnant women, couples planning a pregnancy, couples who are at risk to have a child with a genetic condition, or women who have experienced pregnancy loss.
Regardless of specialty, genetic counselors typically collect a detailed medical and family history. In many cases, based on this history, genetic testing may be indicated to assess the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence. For example, if a couple is planning a pregnancy, genetic carrier screening may be indicated to determine if they are at increased risk to have a child with a genetic disease. As genetic testing can have a significant impact on individuals and families, the decision to pursue genetic testing can often be very personal. Genetic counselors explain the pros and cons of genetic testing, how test results can impact an individual and their family, and share information regarding support and educational resources available to them. Ultimately, genetic counselors give patients the information and support they need to navigate clinical genetics and make the best possible decisions for themselves and their loved ones.
Alexandria Markase is an Associate Genetic Counselor at CooperGenomics. Alex is passionate about increasing genetic literacy and awareness of the utility of genetics-related services in her community.