About Genetic Counseling
What is Genetic Counseling?
THE FORMAL DEFINITION:
Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological, and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.
-National Society of Genetic Counselors
Who are Genetic Counselors?
Genetic counselors are individuals who are specifically trained in genetics as well as counseling. They are members of the health care team and help patients who are in need of genetics services.
Roles that genetic counselors may play in the clinic include:
- Educating patients about genetic disease and inheritance (how diseases run in families)
- Recommending appropriate genetic tests as well as discussing the impact that the testing may have on the patient or family
- Helping patients decide if genetic testing is right for them
- Coordinating genetic tests and interpreting their results.
Genetic counselors oftentimes work with other healthcare providers such as medical geneticists, oncologists, OB/GYNs, and other doctors and healthcare providers. Genetic counselors may also be involved in research or work in genetic testing laboratories.
Who benefits from genetic counseling?
The field of genetics is rapidly expanding as our knowledge about the genetic basis of human disease continues to grow. Therefore, we are able to offer genetics services to an ever-growing population of individuals. In general, individuals who are known to be at risk, or even suspected of being at risk, of being personally affected by a genetic condition or having a child with a genetic condition benefit from genetic counseling.
What type of genetics services may I benefit from?
Couples who are currently pregnant or are planning pregnancy benefit from this service. Prenatal counselors may help with carrier screening, counseling regarding recurrence risks for known familial conditions, prenatal testing for pregnancies suspected to be affected by a genetic condition, routine prenatal screening (the "Down syndrome test"), counseling regarding abnormal ultrasound findings, and assisted reproductive technology.
Genetic counseling may be warranted in individuals with a strong personal or family history of cancer. Cancer counselors may help provide a personalized risk of developing cancer and offer genetic testing for cancer predisposition syndromes. Common reasons for seeing a cancer counselor include: having a personal history of certain early-onset cancers or having multiple related cancers, a strong family history of related cancers and/or early-onset cancer, or a known family history of a cancer predisposition syndrome (i.e. Hereditary Breast/Ovarian Cancer syndrome, Lynch syndrome).
Individuals who are suspected to have, or are at known risk of having, a genetic condition may be evaluated in a general genetics clinic. Typically these clinics involve a genetic counselor as well as a geneticist, and potentially other health care providers. Services include identifying a potential diagnosis for the individual as well as coordination of genetic testing for that condition. Common reasons for being seen in a genetics clinic include but are certainly not limited to: birth defects/congenital heart defects, developmental delay or autism, known chromosome differences, family history of known genetic disease, positive newborn screening, and muscle diseases/muscular dystrophies.
Heart disease is common and has many causes, however, some forms of heart disease are considered to be purely genetic. Services include coordination of genetic testing to identify the underlying reasons for the heart disease. If the cause is found, at-risk family members may be tested as well. Common conditions that warrant testing include: arrhythmia syndromes (i.e. Long QT syndrome, catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia, Brugada syndrome), familial and pediatric cardiomyopathies, and connective tissue disorders with aortic involvement (i.e. Marfan syndrome, vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Loeys-Dietz syndrome).
Children and adults with personal or family history of some types neurological diseases benefit from evaluation and counseling. This type of clinic may overlap with pediatric or general genetics clinic. Common reasons to be seen a neurology genetics clinic include: neuromuscular disorders (muscular dystrophies, neuropathies), Huntington's disease, leukodystrophies, family history of hereditary, early-onset Alzheimers disease, other progressive neurological conditions.
*This list may not be comprehensive; specialty clinics specializing in one particular genetic condition or group of conditions may be available in certain hospitals or health systems.