Genetic counselors work in many areas of medicine, including cancer, prenatal, heart disease, neurology, infertility, pediatric and adult. Many work in patient-facing roles in various types of healthcare settings, while others do research or work in education, public health or in lab settings.
Nov. 9 is Genetic Counselor Awareness Day, the perfect time to answer some questions about this growing and important profession.
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- Q: Can’t my doctor – who knows my family history – provide the same kind of guidance I would get from a genetic counselor?
A: Genetic counselors are a part of the healthcare team and work collaboratively with you AND your doctor. Depending on the specialty and training of your doctor, he or she may not have the time and expertise to help you fully understand how genetic diseases and conditions might affect you or your family. Genetic counselors are experts at interpreting and explaining complex genetic information to both you and your doctor while also providing emotional support when necessary. The information you learn from a genetic counselor should always be communicated back to your doctor to be incorporated into your personalized medical management plan.
- Q: Can a genetic counselor tell me whether I’ll get a certain disease?
A: Nobody can you tell you if you are going to get a disease or guarantee that you will not get it. Many things can influence your risk for a disease, and your genes are only one of them. A genetic counselor can help you understand your chances of developing a disease or condition. Regardless of your risk level, a genetic counselor can work with you and your doctor to develop a plan of action for the disease, including ongoing monitoring and prevention options.
- Q: When is the right time to meet with a genetic counselor – after I’ve had my genetic tests?
A: Many people benefit from meeting with a genetic counselor before undergoing a genetic test. A genetic counselor can help you explore whether getting tested is right for you and if so, which test is appropriate and what laboratory should do the test. A genetic counselor can explain what the test can and cannot tell you and can prepare you for the results, which may impact not only you, but members of your family as well. In some cases, patients choose to decline genetic testing after meeting with a genetic counselor, but still benefit from receiving personalized information about their level of risk, based on their family history and other factors.
- Q: Will a genetic counselor tell me what to do based on my test results?
A: A genetic counselor can provide personalized information, guidance and emotional support through the decision-making process but will not tell you what decision to make. Rather, a genetic counselor will help you understand complex genetic information and provide useful insight and perspectives so you can make an informed decision about what makes sense for you and your family.
- Q: If I need counseling, shouldn’t I see a psychologist or therapist?
A: Some people wonder what type of counseling is provided by a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors counsel, educate, and guide patients about their personalized risk for disease, their options for genetic testing, and their thoughts and feelings about what they want to know. Genetic information not only affects the individual, but also their family members. Some patients can benefit from a genetic counselor’s guidance on how to navigate complex family dynamics when communicating information to relatives. Genetic counselors are not licensed therapists or psychologists but can certainly refer patients for this type of support when necessary.
- Q: Okay, but what if I can’t afford to see a genetic counselor?
A: Health insurance often pays for genetic counseling. In many cases, insurance also will pay for a genetic test if it is recommended by a genetic counselor or a doctor. However, you should check with your insurance company to find out if it will pay for the specific test you are considering and a genetic counselor can guide you on how to do this. Your particular insurance company may cover certain tests, but not others. An advantage to having genetic counseling is that after you receive the information and insight, you may decide you don’t want or need a genetic test, which can save money for you and/or your insurance company.
Genetic counselors are healthcare providers with a very unique and specialized skills. In the world of genetics, where things are constantly changing and evolving, genetic counselors will guide and support you as you seek more information about how inherited diseases might affect you and your family. To find a genetic counselor near you, visit findageneticcounselor.com.
Genetic Counselors are welcome to visit the Genetic Counselor Awareness Day webpage on nsgc.org to learn more and access resources to promote Genetic Counselor Awareness Day.