What is a Genetic Counselor?

Genetic counseling is a process that helps to evaluate and understand a family’s risk of an inherited medical condition.

A genetic counselor is a healthcare professional who has specialized training in medical genetics and counseling, and who focuses on empowering their patients by helping them understand the ways genetics can affect their life. They also educate other healthcare professionals, students, and the public about genetic disorders.

What does a Genetic Counselor do?

Genetic counselors are specialists, which means that they work with a patient’s health care provider as a part of a patient’s complete care.

Patients are referred to a genetics counselor for a wide variety of reasons. Some individuals want to determine if they have a genetic disease. Other individuals have a strong family history of cancer or some other genetic disease, or are pregnant and have an ultrasound abnormality or an abnormal blood testing.

A genetic counselor sitting across a desk from a patient.

Genetic counselors spend a large part of their day meeting with their patients. They take a full family history, ask about birth defects, genetic diseases, intellectual disabilities, autism, and any other significant medical diagnoses.

Genetic counselors will explain how a condition may occur or reoccur, and will go over the details of a specific issue, and what tests are available to the patient. Genetic testing can be complex, and technological advances in testing are making the choices even more difficult. Genetic counselors have the expertise to ensure the appropriate tests are ordered, and will meet with the patient once the test results come back.

There are instances when genetic counselors are in a position to help patients decide what the appropriate next steps are. However, there are situations when the patient must make their own decisions regarding their medical and/or pregnancy care as a result of their genetic testing.

Most genetic disorders involve lifelong care, and genetic counselors often coordinate a patient's care amongst several specialties and support them across their lifespan.

Genetic counselors also provide emotional support to individuals and families during what can be a challenging and confusing time. This is one of the few medical professions that includes extensive training both in the science and the psychological impact of healthcare on patients.

Are you suited to be a genetic counselor?

Genetic counselors have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also social, meaning they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly.

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What is the workplace of a Genetic Counselor like?

Genetic counselors work in a variety of clinical, laboratory, and research settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, genetic testing laboratories, research studies, public health, insurance companies, and many other areas of health care.

Genetic counselors working in clinical settings, such as hospitals or doctor’s offices, see people in a variety of different areas including prenatal, pediatrics, adult/general, cancer, and a number of specialty areas including metabolism, cardiology, and neurology.

They work with patients and families, and also work in public health settings to improve access to services and determine public policy. They work as teachers in high schools, colleges and universities; as researchers who explore and find solutions for unanswered questions in genetics; as consultants for pharmaceutical companies; or in private practice.