A genetic counselor is a valuable part of the healthcare team who has completed master’s level work in the study of genetics and in the study of counseling, usually through a genetic counseling master’s program. These specialists are trained in counseling many different types of people whose lives may be affected at some point by genetically caused illnesses or genetic risk for certain disease. While they investigate possible genetic links that might increase risk for disease, they also interpret medical literature and findings for patients to help them understand the possible effects that genetics may play in their lives or the lives of their families. In other words, as much as they investigate, genetic counselors also teach and counsel those who may be especially affected by inherited conditions or genetic misfires.
There are many people who may receive a referral to a genetic counselor. Women who have early fetal testing that shows a child may have one or more genetic anomalies may speak with a counselor to determine what these genetic anomalies mean if the pregnancy continues. Counselors may also be able to advise pregnant women about whether the condition affecting a current fetus would be likely to recur in future pregnancies.
When children are born with congenital defects, if parents have not yet seen a genetic counselor, they are often advised to do so. Not all defects or illnesses in children are of an inherited origin, but a genetic counselor can help determine this given current information, and again advise parents on the potential for other children having a specific disease. Sometimes findings from one child may suggest that older children might bear similar genetic risks, and in these cases, genetic counselors can suggest parents have their older children tested for a genetic defect or disease that has not fully been expressed, but could prove problematic later. This may prove life saving in certain circumstances.
The third group of people with whom a genetic counselor might work are those who develop genetic diseases in adulthood, such as Huntington’s or some forms of hereditary cancer. Genetic counselors may help determine if a condition is in fact hereditary, and what this means for the person affected. These findings may again be valuable to a whole family and could help a person decide what actions they ought to take, and whether other family members ought to be tested for similar illness.
While genetic counselors can help determine risks and advise people of them, their role is not to push people to make decisions. Personal prejudice on how people should act should never get in the way and this is something these counselors must strive to avoid. Rather, the goal of the genetic counselor is to allow people to get as much information as they can so that their decisions about future actions are informed ones.
Some genetic counselors do not work with specific patients but instead work for companies that produce pharmaceuticals, or they may do research and/or teach in academic settings. Others may take part in creating public policy based on research in their field.