Genetic Counseling 101

Genetic counseling is a health-care career that is centered on helping patients by providing information about genetic risk factors and available genetic tests, as well as providing emotional support. As defined by the National Society of Genetic Counselors, a genetic counselor is a professional who has specialized education in genetics and counseling to provide personalized help to patients as they make decisions about their genetic health.

How was the field of genetic counseling created?

Genetic counseling was born out of the eugenics movement, which peaked in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. The end goal of the eugenics movement was to improve the human race by only allowing those who were deemed “fit” to reproduce. While the eugenics movement is typically associated with Nazi Germany, at one point in the 1930s the majority of U.S. states had sterilization laws targeting the poor and minority groups. Despite the negative beginnings, the field started to blossom in the late 1940s when Sheldon Reed first coined the term “genetic counseling.” In opposition to the eugenics movement where patients had little influence on medical decisions, genetic counselors practice a nondirective approach that provides the patient with the information needed to make an informed decision. Every decade since has seen tremendous growth in the knowledge and technologies available to diagnose genetic disorders.

What does the field of genetic counseling look like today?

Today there are nearly 5,000 certified genetic counselors in the United States — there was a 100 percent increase in the amount of certified genetic counselors between 2006 and 2018. There are three main subspecialties: prenatal, pediatrics and cancer genetics. The largest subspecialty is cancer genetics, followed by prenatal genetics. Additionally, there is a wide variety of subspecialties including metabolic disease, cardiology and neurological genetics.

The majority of genetic counselors work in a university-owned medical center, a hospital or a laboratory setting. While most genetic counselors provide direct patient care and typically work in a clinical setting, approximately 25 percent of genetic counselors do not and typically work in a research setting.

There are currently 46 accredited genetic counseling programs in the United States and Canada, but more programs are being created every year. Genetic counseling graduate programs are two years long and involve a combination of classroom learning and clinical exposure. After receiving a master’s in science, students take the American Board of Genetic Counseling national certification exam to become certified genetic counselors.

Where is the field of genetic counseling going next?

According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is expected to be a 29 percent growth rate of genetic counseling positions from 2016 to 2026. Further, the average salary of a genetic counselor, approximately $88,500, has increased 8 percent over the past two years and is expected to continue to increase.

Advances in technology have revolutionized genetic testing. The National Institute of Health estimated the sequencing of first human genome cost approximately $3 billion. Now, a human genome costs less than $2,000 to sequence and it is predicted that the cost of whole genome sequencing will continue to decrease. As these high-throughput sequencing technologies continue to lower in price, whole genome and whole exome sequencing are likely to become the leading genetic tests.

While the exact future of genetic counseling may be unknown, it is clear the dynamic career field will experience tremendous growth and expansion in the coming years.

By Daisy Ritenour

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