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What is Genetics Counseling?

The goal of genetics counseling is to inform patients about how genetic conditions may affect them. Genetic counselors explain to their clients the causes, mitigating factors and medical and well-being impacts of genetic conditions.

Why See a Genetic Counselor?

People see a genetic counselor if they are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant to learn about potential health issues. People are always referred to see a genetic counselor by their OB-GYN if their baby had an abnormal result from standard newborn screening exams. Genetic counselors may refer these patients to see a prenatal genetic counselor. If a child or a family member has been diagnosed with a genetic or inherited condition, genetic counselors will provide useful information.

Related: The Complete List of Master's in Genetic Counseling Programs, Ranked by Affordability 2016

Families with a history of cancer, mental illness, birth defects or developmental disability will usually be referred to genetic counselors. Some of the most common genetic birth defects include heart, blood and neural tube disorders. There are over 220,000 births of babies with Down syndrome around the world every year. Learn more about the duties of genetic counselors at the National Society of Genetic Counselors' (NSGC) website.

Genetic Counselors' Job Duties

During the first session, genetic counselors will review family history, ethnic heritage and personal medical histories. They will explain how genetic conditions are passed down through families and determine if their clients are at risk for certain diseases. They will provide information about genetic conditions and offer guidance to help their clients make informed choices and life plans. Genetic counselors provide information about testing options and why sometimes there are no tests currently available.

They help clients decide what is best by guiding them through the decision-making process for genetic testing, family planning, or medical planning. They will help their clients deal with emotions and the ramifications associated with having or being at risk of having a known genetic condition. They will provide referrals to medical specialists, patient advocates, social workers, support networks and community resources.

Prenatal Counseling

Prenatal genetic counselors work with individuals and couples who have an increased likelihood of having a child
with a known birth defect or genetic condition. Those who are pregnant or are considering becoming pregnant meet with prenatal genetic counselors to learn more about their conditions, understand their risks and discuss options for prenatal testing and screening. These include procedures such as blood tests and ultrasounds.

Prenatal genetic counselors can teach their clients about assisted reproduction techniques like egg and sperm donation.
If a baby is unexpectedly found to have a birth defect or genetic condition during pregnancy, prenatal genetic counselors will help their clients understand the medical condition, what to expect, and how to prepare for the birth of a child with special needs. In some cases, they will discuss options such as adoption to an assisted living program or pregnancy termination.

For those who are planning on getting genetics counseling, it's important to prepare certain questions to ask. These include questions about how genetic diseases are passed, what the costs of testing are and what are the benefits
and limitations of each test.