What Can a Certified Genetic Counselor Do for You?

Given the many online, from-home options we have today to find out everything we need to know about our genetic blueprint from our ancestry to our genetic predispositions to certain diseases, it seems like we don’t really need anyone else but ourselves—especially paying someone a lot of our hard-earned cash just because they have a master’s degree or Ph.D. in genetic testing. All the information is available to us and it is often just a few clicks and a cheek swab away. But how sure are we that having the genetic information can help us not just make proper sense of them but also help us make important decisions about our healthcare or understand potential genetic disorders or birth defects? How sure are we that the results we get are positive or negative or a sure thing? Genetic tests can certainly reveal a bunch of information—see it as pieces of a genetic puzzle, but it is not generally recommended to make healthcare decisions based on them without first speaking to a professional about it.

I know, you’re probably thinking that you don’t need yet another reason to go see a doctor regarding potential genetic conditions such as hereditary cancer like breast cancer. Or perhaps you don’t want to wait yet another few weeks or months until someone sheds some more light on these results. Or perhaps you’re simply content with the information you have and you don’t really need anything else. But a doctor is not the only certified or skilled health care worker who can help you make sense of your genetic test results.

Meet the term: genetic counselor. They work in either private practices or hospitals and/or clinics. These individuals are healthcare professionals who have gone to school and are training in medical genetics and counseling. They are great resources as they inform and advise both individuals and families in terms of their chances of getting a certain heritable disease. They can also discuss available treatment options. Genetic counselors will both interpret and analyze your genetic test result and can work with you if you happen to find out you are at risk for developing specific disorders. They can advise on things such as risk probability, lifestyle changes as well as preventative treatment options. What’s best, genetic counselors come in different forms—depending on the area of their expertise, you can choose to work with someone who specializes in the very disease that you happen to be at risk. Physicians, as well as other healthcare practitioners, will often refer their patients who have a family history of a specific disease to see a genetic counselor.

There is actually an institution, the Genetic Counseling Definition Task Force of the National Society of Genetic Counselors that has defined the term ‘genetic counseling.’ According to them: “Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease. This process integrates the following: Interpretation of family and medical histories to assess the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence. Education about inheritance, testing, management, prevention, resources, and research. Counseling to promote informed choices and adaptation to the risk or condition.”

As you can see, genetic counselors

As you can see, genetic counselors are a great resource, and not just to help you make sense of your genetic test results, but also in terms of the greater picture of your genetic background. You don’t have to have taken a genetic test to seek a genetic counselor. If you know your family history and you know that there are inheritable diseases and would like to know your chances of getting them, a genetic counselor can help you find out. See it as a kind of genetic social work. Think of them as an encyclopedia-type resource—they have most of the answers within the genetics realm.

Reasons for seeking out a genetic counselor or thinking about further genetic testing include the following:

  • Chromosome abnormality or genetic condition as part of family history.
  • Single gene disorder molecular testing.
  • Mother is older than 35.
  • Father is older than 40.
  • Abnormal prenatal results (serum or ultrasound).
  • Abnormal neural findings via ultrasound.
  • Family history of cancer.

For example, a pregnant woman may be referred to consult a genetic counselor if she discovered a risk through prenatal testing. Also, individuals may seek the help of a genetic counselor following the birth of a child with a genetic condition. In situations like these, genetic counselors are there to explain the disease, treatment,and management as well as possible risks of subsequent children having the same disease.

So, a genetic counselor and a certified genetic counselor are essentially the same thing. It has become a requirement for everyone in the profession to become certified, and as such a certified genetic counselor is internationally recognized.

To get back to the original question of what a certified genetic counselor can do for you—it largely depends on who you are and what your needs are. Whether you are a couple who is looking to have a baby, or you are a couple who has a baby with a genetic disorder and would like to know the chances of that being the case with the second baby, genetic counselors can help you address that. If you have just received the results of your buccal swab and you are sitting on your ancestral as well as health information that was obtained from your DNA, genetic counselors can help you make sense of it all.

Beyond that, being in the know helps you decide on the next steps. It can help you make decisions that may improve your quality of life or that may even save your life. However, that largely depends on what type of advice you seek and where. The biggest issue with receiving genetic test results is that people tend to be overconfident about knowing what they mean. As such, they may oversee details that may be important. A certified genetic counselor can help make sense of it all so that these results are more than just satisfying your curiosity.

Laura Day