Genetic Discoveries Create Demand for Genetic Counselors

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 health.

"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 (NSGC).

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 changing field."

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 decisions!

"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 for them."

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 diagnosis.

"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 says.

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 co-workers."

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

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