Thanks to genetic scientists, we can find out more about our health
than ever before. Simple tests can tell us our risk of getting some cancers
or genetic diseases, for example. But these discoveries can bring some tough
decisions. Genetic counselors help people understand how genetic information
can affect all aspects of their lives.
As we learn more about our genes, there will be more demand for genetic
counselors to help people understand how these discoveries can impact their
"Genetic counselors can help people understand and evaluate their own genetic
health risks and determine if genetic testing will be helpful to them," says
Nancy Callanan. She's the president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors
Nationwide, genetic counselors serve over 1.2 million clinical and professional
clients each year, Callanan says. Many say this number will continue to grow
as more tests are developed -- and that means the demand for genetic counselors
will also increase.
"Since the field is growing so rapidly, insiders are concerned about how
they are going to meet the demand for genetic counselors in the future," says
Jennifer Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is a certified genetic counselor and the
director of a university program in genetic counseling.
"There are currently less than 3,000 genetic counselors in North America.
They are barely meeting the population's need for counseling and testing for
the disorders for which the genes have already been identified," she says.
Growing Areas for Counselors
The completion of the Human Genome Project has greatly expanded our understanding
of human genes, including their structure, function and interactions.
"As our ability to diagnose and manage genetic health problems and susceptibilities
increases, the need for the services of professional genetic counselors will
continue to increase," Callanan says. "New discoveries also have led to an
increased number of genetic tests available."
As the genetic bases of common disorders, including diabetes, heart disease
and more types of cancer, are discovered, more people will have questions
about their individual risks, Fitzpatrick says.
Daniel Riconda works at a Florida hospital for women and children at their
center for fetal diagnostics. The majority of the patients he sees have prenatal
concerns. His hospital also assists pediatric patients, infertility patients
and cancer patients.
Genetic counselors like Riconda work in a variety of professional settings
including hospitals, universities, private practices, research and commercial
laboratories, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, nonprofit organizations,
and government agencies.
There are several clinical specialty practice areas in genetic counseling,
including pediatric and adult genetics, prenatal genetics, and cancer genetics.
"Although many genetic counselors work in clinical settings, others are
primarily involved in research, education and other areas, such as advocacy
or policy," Callanan says.
The demand for genetic counselors appears to be particularly high in the
field of cancer genetics and research-related areas, Fitzpatrick says.
Pharmacogenetics is another upcoming area, says Paula Delk. She is director
of a genetic counseling program in Indianapolis. She works primarily as a
pediatric genetic counselor.
Delk says tests are being developed to evaluate the presence of specific
changes in a gene that can affect the way a person's body handles medications.
Riconda agrees that there are many new specialties on the horizon. "As
the role of genetics in medicine continues to expand, job opportunities in
genetic counseling will likely expand into areas of health care and health-care
delivery that we haven't yet imagined," he says.
"The people skills of genetic counselors also makes them good candidates
for other jobs that require the integration of new technologies in a constantly
Challenges for Genetic Counselors
Potential genetic counselors may be concerned about how they would advise
patients on the "right" thing to do. Their patients often face some tough
"Genetic counselors respect and promote the autonomy of their patients,"
Callanan says. "We do not see our role as telling people the 'right' thing
to do, but rather in providing information and support.
"Genetic counselors use their counseling skills to help people evaluate
their options for managing genetic risks in light of their own personal values
and beliefs and thus empower their clients to make decisions that are best
As a genetic counselor, Riconda finds that the most gratifying and challenging
cases are those in which a person is confronted with a difficult and unexpected
"In the patient's search for answers, genetic counselors can make a huge
difference in the acquisition of knowledge they may need following a diagnosis
and provide support that usually is not available from other sources," Riconda
Genetic counselors face other challenges in their work, including staying
current in a rapidly changing field. Ongoing education, such as that provided
by NSGC, is one way to meet that challenge, Callanan says.
Other challenges for genetic counselors include coping with the stressful
situations that the career often brings.
"Many genetic counselors find that the support they receive from their
colleagues can be very helpful during stressful times," Callanan says. "Genetic
counselors often seek this support informally, through discussions with their
Joining a professional organization, such as NSGC, provides opportunities
to network with other genetic counselors regionally and nationally. Fitzpatrick
suggests that genetic counselors and others in helping professions engage
in fun things, like movies, reading, music and physical activities, to renew
themselves emotionally and physically. Then they can provide the best care
possible for clients.
Preparing for the Work
Those who want to work in the field of genetic counseling are required
to earn a master's degree.
Students interested in this career would benefit from shadowing a genetic
counselor. "Not only can you get a much more intimate appreciation for the
nuances of the profession, but many graduate programs consider such experience
in their admissions review process," Riconda says.
Job shadowing and internships also allow a person to see if they have
an aptitude and inclination for this type of work "The field of genetic counseling
is evolving rapidly -- for this reason, it remains stimulating and exciting,"
Fitzpatrick says. "Genetic counselors can work with patients, teach, do research
or work for private industry. The sky is the limit."
National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC)
For information on new developments, careers and education
American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC)
Detailed training information
How to Find a Genetic Counselor
For more information on the services available
Genetic Counseling Programs
An index of education programs