About Genetic Counselors
“Having a genetic counselor as part of our practice has been invaluable.” - Lora D. Barke, DO
What is a genetic counselor?
Genetic counselors are healthcare professionals with unique specialized graduate degrees and experience in the areas of both medical genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors work as members of a healthcare team, providing risk assessment, education and support to individuals and families at risk for, or diagnosed with, a variety of inherited conditions. Genetic counselors also interpret genetic testing, provide supportive counseling, and serve as patient advocates.
What is genetic counseling?
Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease. This process integrates:
- 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.
National Society of Genetic Counselors, 2005
What do genetic counselors do?
Genetic counselors work in many areas of medicine including cancer, prenatal, pediatric, and adult. Some genetic counselors specialize in areas such as cardiology, neurology, and infertility, among many others. In addition, some genetic counselors work outside clinical practice in research, education, public health and industry settings.
While their roles may vary depending on specialty, all genetic counselors in a clinical setting help patients and families understand complex issues and support their emotional needs. Genetic counselors are very good at interpreting test results and explaining information to patients in way that is easy for them to understand.
What specialty areas do genetic counselors serve?
Genetic Counselors are becoming an integral part of clinical care in many areas of medicine.
- ART/Infertility Genetics
- Cancer Genetics
- Cardiovascular Genetics
- Cystic Fibrosis Genetics
- Fetal Intervention and Therapy Genetics
- Hematology Genetics
- Metabolic Genetics
- Pediatric Genetics
- Personalized Medicine Genetics
- Prenatal Genetics
How can I determine what genetic test is most appropriate for my patient?
There are currently thousands of genetic tests available, and it can be difficult to choose which genetic test is most appropriate for each patient. Genetic counselors are equipped with the tools and expertise to choose the most appropriate and tailored genetic test, testing laboratory, and technology for each of your patients’ specific medical concerns.
I want to offer genetic testing options to my patients, but I don't have time to discuss or research all of the options available. Can a genetic counselor help me?
Yes. One of the focuses of genetic counseling is to provide patients with information on the benefits and potential limitations of genetic testing. As part of a genetic counseling consultation, the genetic counselor will discuss genetic testing options with your patients in detail, will facilitate the genetic testing informed consent process, coordinate sample collection, interpret the results, and provide a summary of this information to you and your patients.
If I refer a patient, will my patient come back to my practice for care?
Yes. Genetic counselors serve as consultants to you and your patients for genetics-related evaluation. Once your patients’ genetic risk assessment, evaluation, and genetic testing is complete, your patient will be sent back to you with a summary of their genetic test results and any recommended risk-reducing and/or management strategies. Usually your patients will meet with the genetic counselor 1-2 times.
Is genetic counseling covered by health insurance?
Genetic counselors participate with many health insurance providers. Genetic counseling services are often covered like any other specialist. However, every insurance plan is different. Many insurance plans may require a referral from you in order to get coverage for genetic counseling services. Your patients may want to check the terms of their plan before their appointment. Once your patients meet with a genetic counselor, the counselor will help determine whether their insurance will cover any appropriate genetic testing.
Who should be referred to a genetic counselor?
There are many possible situations in which a patient may benefit from a referral to a genetic counselor. The following are a few examples:
- Family history of an inherited condition such as cystic fibrosis, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or muscular dystrophy
- Strong family history of conditions such as cancer and heart disease with questions about genetic testing
- A family history of one individual diagnosed with a common condition but at a young age, such as a sister with breast cancer under age 50
- Pregnant woman who wants to learn more about prenatal screening and diagnostic testing options or their results
- A woman trying to get pregnant who has concerns about her and/or her partner’s family history, has had 2 or more miscarriages, or has other genetic concerns
- Ethnicity based carrier testing
A genetic counselor would always be happy to discuss referrals with a physician before they are made.
How can I find a genetic counselor?
You can find a genetic counselor by using the Find a Counselor tool on the NSGC website.
What are some examples of how a genetic counselor can help me?
Here are some examples of how genetic counselors can help you and your patients. These case scenarios are just two examples of how a referral to a genetic counselor will benefit your practice.
You receive a positive multiple marker screening result on one of your patients and communicate that result to her. She is understandably upset and wants additional information. You refer her to a genetic counselor who meets with your patient and her partner to discuss her screening results in detail, gives her emotional support as needed, reviews the risks and benefits of follow-up diagnostic options, and coordinates any additional testing options that the patient decides upon. he genetic counselor is also available to help interpret and communicate diagnostic testing results to your patient and has the training and expertise to be particularly helpful when those results are not straightforward. The patient remains in your primary care during this process while the genetic counselor serves as a consultant to you and your patient.
One of your patients reports that her 52 year old mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. In gathering additional information, you learn that your patient’s maternal grandfather had “some kind of cancer”. The patient is asking if she should consider BRCA testing. You refer your patient to a genetic counselor who takes a detailed family history and obtains medical records on relevant family members in order to make an accurate risk assessment for your patient. Based on that assessment, the genetic counselor discusses appropriate testing options and addresses your patient’s concerns about the implications of test results on insurance coverage. If your patient proceeds with testing, the genetic counselor can coordinate that testing and will be available to help interpret and communicate testing results to your patient. Based on genetic testing results, the genetic counselor may also make recommendations about ongoing health screening tests and management options. The patient remains in your primary care during this process while the genetic counselor serves as a consultant to you and your patient.