What is Genetics Counseling?
Genetics counseling blends the scientific study of hereditary disorders with the application of psychological principles, such as counseling, to assist families facing difficulties as a result of an inherited medical condition. Genetics counseling differs from other counseling disciplines in that it is focused more on scientific research in the realm of biology than it is on the study of human behavior. That being said, genetics counselors do provide guidance, empathy, education, and reassurance to families regarding genetic conditions.
Most people that seek out the services of a genetics counselor do so out of concern that a genetic disorder may be present in the family, because multiple pregnancies have been lost, or when an ultrasound suggests that a problem may be present. As a result, genetics counseling is most often concerned with three primary areas of focus: prenatal, pediatric, and cancer. In fact, approximately two-thirds of genetics counselors work in one of these three areas. However, genetics counseling is quickly expanding into other areas of study and application, including assistive reproductive technologies, genomic medicine, cardiovascular health, and neuropsychiatric genetics.
What are the Job Duties of a Genetics Counselor?
The primary task of a genetics counselor is to assess an individual’s or family’s risk for an inherited condition such as a birth defect. In this capacity, genetics counselors conduct interviews with patients and examine information from a patient’s medical history to develop an assessment of potential risks for specific disorders. Genetics counselors prepare extensive reports based on these findings to share with both patients and medical professionals.
Using this information, genetics counselors recommend a possible course of action. Various tests may be ordered, which genetics counselors would evaluate, interpret, and communicate to the patient. In some cases, genetics counselors conduct this lab work themselves, but in some employment settings lab technicians take care of testing. From there, possible treatments would be outlined, including an in-depth discussion of the risks, benefits, and limitations of the treatments.
Genetics counselors work with expecting parents to determine the risk that their unborn child will have a disorder like cystic fibrosis. They also often work in the pediatric realm, helping families cope with the stress of having a child with a genetic disorder and identifying methods of treatment. Genetics counselors often work with adults as well to identify potential risk factors for the development of a chronic disease, such as cancer.
An essential duty of genetics counselors is to work with families to help them better understand genetic conditions. This educational component might involve explaining the results of testing, offering information about classes, or explaining to patients the risks of hereditary issues as they pertain to a specific situation, such as the increased risk of Down syndrome in children born to mothers over the age of 35.
Supplementing the educational aspect is a counseling component as well. Genetics counselors might engage individuals or families in counseling or conduct support groups for people who have a genetic disorder or have a family member with a genetic disorder. They may also help coordinate services with other entities, such as treatment facilities or non-profit organizations, to ensure families have the support they need.
What is the Job Outlook for Genetics Counselor?
Genetics counseling is a rapidly growing field of work. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be a 27 percent increase in genetics counseling jobs over the next half-decade. The ongoing development of genetics testing is primarily fueling this growth. The increased interest among the population with regard to genetic disorders, birth defects, and inherited physical and mental conditions – and how to address them – is also leading to significant growth of jobs in this specific field.
However, it should be noted that genetics counseling is a highly specific field with many qualified workers. And although enormous growth is projected, only about 900 additional jobs will result. This means that competition for jobs as a genetics counselor will remain robust, particularly for recent graduates and individuals with less than five years of on-the-job experience.
How Much Does a Genetics Counselor Make?
According to Salary.com, the median annual salary for a genetics counselor is $76,890, as of April 2020. The pay band for workers in this field extends from a low of less than $60,000 per year to a high of more than $90,000 per year. As with any other field of work, the pay is dependent upon a variety of factors. The level of education and experience are primary determinants of salary, with master’s level workers and those with several years of experience making higher annual wages. However, the setting in which one is employed, the location in which one lives, as well as the size and type of the employer can all impact the salary package offered to a genetics counselor. Whether one is certified and/or licensed can also impact the level of income one can expect.
What Degree is Required for a Genetics Counselor?
The road to becoming a genetics counselor begins with an undergraduate degree. Typically, a program in biology or a health care-related field is the most advisable. Bachelor’s degree programs are generalist in nature and focus broadly on the basics of heredity, genetics, biochemistry, statistics, and research methods. Most bachelor degree programs are approximately 120 semester credits, which take about four years to complete.
Once a bachelor’s degree is obtained, one must graduate with a master’s degree in order to work as a genetics counselor. These programs focus on advanced studies in two primary areas. First, students study genetics and conduct lab-based biological research. Second, students also develop the counseling skills required to work with individuals and families that are facing difficulties because of a genetic disorder. Coursework and research are also focused on public health issues, developmental biology, epidemiology, and psychological principles.
Certification is available for genetics counselors through the American Board of Genetic Counseling. To qualify for certification, genetics counselors must successfully complete a board-certified master’s degree program and pass a comprehensive genetics counseling exam. Once certification is granted, counselors must engage in continuing education in order to retain their certification.
Certification is voluntary in some cases, however, in states that require a license to practice, certification in required. Depending on the employer, certification may be required as well. Licensure, like certification, generally involves a graduate degree from a board-certified program and passage of a content-specific examination.
What Can You Do With a Master’s in Genetic Counseling?
Although genetic counseling is a relatively rare position in the counseling world, there are still many different employment options given the right training and level of experience.
A common workplace for genetic counselors is in a hospital setting. There, genetic counselors work closely with medical staff to test and evaluate patients for various genetic conditions and diseases. For example, a genetic counselor might work with a pregnant client to test her baby for conditions like Down syndrome. Genetic counselors would also work with couples trying to get pregnant to review genetic testing procedures, test for possible genetic disorders, and identify inheritance patterns within the family.
Another potential career path for a genetic counselor is to work in a private or government-funded research environment. In this setting, genetic counselors would focus on research into various genetic disorders, seeking to find markers that indicate the presence of the disorder, as well as how to possibly treat or cure the disorder. They may also work on epidemiological studies to determine how various diseases are transmitted and how to prevent that transmission from occurring.
Biotechnology companies employ a large number of genetic counselors. Like in research settings, genetic counselors that work for biotechnology companies focus on research. They may work their entire career on trying to develop a treatment or cure for a specific condition, such as Fragile X syndrome, or they may explore potential treatments for a wide variety of genetic disorders and diseases. In this setting, genetic counselors would not engage in counseling services with clients. Rather, their time would be spent in laboratory settings conducting research and carrying out tests and trials of drug therapies and other treatments.
Many genetic counselors work in specialized clinics as well, such as those that work specifically with cancer genetics, cardiovascular genetics, or neurogenetics. Here, genetic counselors might engage clients in educational activities to teach them about inheritance of genetic disorders and possible testing methods to determine whether a genetic condition is present. Disease prevention is also a large part of the job, with genetic counselors offering insights into prevention and management programs.
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