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What is a Genetic Counselor?

written by: alisonc•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 11/20/2009

This article describes the role and responsibilities of a genetic counselor.

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    Genetic Counselor

    A genetic counselor is a professional who advises individuals and families at risk of inheriting genetic conditions and disorders. Genetic counselors generally have Master’s degrees, and they receive training in a variety of disciplines, including genetics, biology, psychology, and nursing. While a genetic counselor has many responsibilities and enjoys a multifaceted career, one of their primary responsibilities is to explain to patients, in clear and understandable language, the nature and consequences of an inherited genetic disorder and the probability of inheriting this disorder or the likelihood of passing on this disorder to their children. The genetic counselor is also a patient advocate who refers his or her patients to state or community support services.

    Genetic counselors do not work in isolation or as independent agents; they are generally an integral part of a health care team in that not only do they serve as a resource for patients ranging from infants to the elderly, they also serve as a resource to physicians. Some counselors also work in administrative capacities, or as researchers in the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling. Other counselors teach and supervise clinical students. Genetic counselors are most often employed at hospitals, pediatric care centers, specialty and high-risk prenatal clinics offering prenatal diagnosis, and adult genetic centers.

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    What Does a Genetic Counselor Deal With?

    The responsibilities of a genetic counselor are so varied, that it is somewhat difficult to describe a “typical day." However, there are a number of examples of what a genetic counselor may do on any given day. He or she may meet with a pair of prospective parents in which one or both of them are carriers of a rare genetic disease or condition, complete a pedigree chart for each, and discuss their various options, such as adoption or sperm or egg donation. He or she may also meet with a middle aged person with a family history of a particular rare genetic disease, and is contemplating taking a genetic test that predicts the likelihood of developing this disease. Another typical activity for the genetic counselor might include spending some time screening or counseling individuals who have participated in a clinical trial and need assistance with ethical decisions. Finally, another activity might be collecting resources and information about Alzeheimer’s or Huntington's disease for an elderly patient and emailing the results to both the patient and his or her physician.