When I tell people I’m a genetic counselor, I’m often met with a blank stare. When someone does respond, it often includes one of the following questions:
1. “You tell people whether they should have children?” Or
2. “So…you counsel my genes?”
No, we neither counsel people’s genes (whatever that even means), nor do we tell couples whether they should have children. We are not in the family planning business. Genetic counselors work with individuals or families who either have, or may be at risk for, a genetic condition. We provide our patients with information about the features of a particular genetic condition and potential treatment and screening options. We discuss the cause of the condition, whether it can be inherited in a family and explain available testing options and results. The information and support provided by the genetic counselor greatly varies based on the reason for genetic counseling and the needs of the particular patient.
We are educators and supporters and help our patients understand complex genetic risk information so they can make decisions that are in line with their cultural and familial beliefs. Sometimes these decisions are extremely difficult with no apparent “good” solution. We’re not physicians so we don’t diagnose ailments, nor do we prescribe medications. However, we often work very closely with physicians and aid in the diagnostic process.
Genetic counselors have traditionally worked in prenatal, pediatric and cancer genetics clinics. However, genetic counselors have valuable knowledge and skills that may be applied in a variety of settings. It’s becoming more and more common for genetic counselors to work outside of the traditional clinic. These expanded roles include adult medicine, research, public health, education, industry and public policy. As science and medicine learn more about the impact of genetics on common diseases like heart disease, diabetes and macular degeneration, there will be a growing need for genetic counselors working in adult medicine and primary care.
I was a junior in college before I heard about genetic counseling as a possible career choice. I was on a pre-medicine track, but in the back of my mind, worried medicine was not the right field. For me, genetic counseling is the perfect marriage of genetics, medicine and education.
Genetic counselors are health care professionals with specialized master’s degrees in genetic counseling. Most genetic counseling programs are two years in length with the first year being a combination of coursework and clinical experience and the second year consisting largely of supervised clinical rotations. My best advice for those considering genetic counseling as a career would be to get a good foundation in biology and genetics, and then get out there – volunteer with support groups, help with community events, shadow genetic counselors – figure out for yourself if genetic counseling is the right career choice for you.
For more information about what a genetic counselor is, or to find a genetic counselor near you, visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors website. You can find a list of the accredited programs by visiting the American Board of Genetics website or learn about other genetic fields of interest here. Kelly East is a board-certified genetic counselor with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s degree in genetic counseling from Auburn and UNC – Greensboro, respectively. Kelly is part of the educational outreach department at HudsonAlpha. Working with patients and the public, helping them to understand the impact of genetics on health and disease, is one of her favorite parts of being a genetic counselor.