Genetic counselors are health professionals with specialized graduate degrees and experience in the areas of medical genetics and counseling who work as members of a health care team, providing information.
Genetic counselors work in many different settings (obstetrics, pediatrics, and all areas of adult medicine), but in all the settings, they provide 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. As part of their job, they identify families at risk for a genetic condition, provide information about the disorder and the chances of it 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 may teach (medical students, other health care professionals, college students, high school students, the “general public”), or act as 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.
What type of individuals to genetic counselors serve?
Individuals and couples who may benefit from genetic counseling include:
- Persons or families with a history of a physical birth defect, such as cleft lip or palate, congenital heart defects, spina bifida, or short stature.
- Persons or families with a genetic or inherited disorders such as Down syndrome, Huntington disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, PKU, or hemophilia.
- Persons or families affected with a condition that could be genetic, such as mental retardation or learning disabilities, or hearing or visual impairments.
- Families with a history of heart disease, cancer, psychiatric or neurogenetic adult disorders
- Persons who have had multiple miscarriages, stillbirths or early infant deaths (that might involve birth defects)
- Women age 34 and over who are pregnant or are planning pregnancy
- Pregnant women at high risk due to screening tests results from serum screening (e.g. the “Triple screen” or ultrasound
- Pregnant women worried about the effects of exposure to medication, drugs, chemicals, infectious agents, radiation or certain work conditions. This subspecialty is called teratology.
- Persons in specific ethnic groups or geographic areas that have a higher incidence of certain disorders, such as Tay Sachs disease, sickle cell disease, or thalassemias
Where and how do genetic counselors become trained?
Currently, numerous training programs offer master’s degrees in genetic counseling in the United States. Programs are also offered in Canada, Australia, England and South Africa. Most enter the field from a variety of disciplines, including biology, genetics, nursing, psychology, public health and social work. Most people who enter genetic counseling do so because they enjoy (and are good at) science, and want to find a career where they can combine that with their interest in working with people in a helping manner.
Coursework typically covers both medical/scientific and counseling areas. It includes clinical genetics, population genetics, cytogenetics, and molecular genetics coupled with psychosocial theory, ethics and counseling techniques. All students must complete clinical rotations in ABGC-approved medical genetics centers, and some programs require a research project be completed. Additional programs accept nurses seeking post-graduate degrees with specialty training in genetics.
Certification in genetic counseling is available by the American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC). Requirements include documentation of the following: a graduate degree in genetic counseling; clinical experience in an ABGC-approved training site or sites; a log book of 50 supervised cases; and successful completion of both the general and specialty certification examination.
A small but growing number of states also have a licensure process in place for practicing genetic counselors.
What are the employment opportunities for genetic counselors? How much do genetic counselors earn?
Genetic counselors are employed in a growing number or professional settings including hospitals, universities, private practices, research and commercial labs, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
The future of the genetic counseling profession is strengthened by advances in genomics, including the completion of the Human Genome Project. The expansion of genomic medicine demands experts who can assess and communicate health risks and assist healthcare professionals and patients with decision-making regarding testing and treatment options. Genetic counselors are ideally equipped to respond to these demands and will be a primary resource as society adapts to the changes brought about by this new scientific era.
Nationwide, genetic counselors serve over 1.5 million clinical and professional clients each year. From the year 2000 to 2002, the number of patients seen by practicing genetic counselors increased by 66%. As the field of genetics continues to revolutionize medicine, the number of patients interacting with genetic counselors is expected to grow exponentially. The need for qualified genetic professionals will therefore increase accordingly, creating a greater demand for the employment of genetic counselors.
According to the 2004 Professional status survey done by the NSGC, the median salary for a professional with 1-4 years of experience is approximately $47,000, with a range from $35,000-90,000 depending on the work setting.
What is the purpose of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC)?
The NSGC’s Mission is to promote the genetic counseling profession as a recognized and integral part of health care delivery, education, research and public policy. The Society, which represents more than 2,000 genetic counselors in the US and internationally, promotes the professional interests of genetic counselors and provides a network for professional communications. Local and national continuing education opportunities and the discussion of all issues relevant to human genetics and the genetic counseling profession are an integral part of belonging to the NSGC.
Last updated: July 2005