Genetic counselors: How they can help you or your family

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What do genetic counselors do? While many have heard about genetic counselors, most have no idea what they do. Let’s look at the important role they play in the healthcare system and communities and how they can be utilized more often. Genetic counselors are used mostly during pregnancy, and they look at other genes and map out genomes that will affect one’s health and future. Then they educate patients with the next steps to help create a plan that will best benefit their health.

Do genetic counselors only work in clinical settings? Genetic counselors work in many other locations other than just doctors’ offices and hospitals. They play an essential role in research. There are so many genes that can cause problems and so many more that research is still learning about. Discoveries about the human genome are helping clinical genetic counselors figure out what is going on with their patients, which can be critical to health.

Who should see a genetic counselor? There are many specialties in this field. A few typical specialties are prenatal, pediatrics, adult, and cancer. So almost any age group may want to see a genetic counselor. There are many more, but most people usually want to know when it is necessary to see a genetic counselor. The basic reasons for why you would see a genetic counselor is if someone in your family has an inherited disease, you are 35 years or older and having a child, you have previously had a child with a genetic condition, you have had a miscarriage, or lost a child early on, you have abnormal prenatal results, or your child is showing symptoms of a disorder. All of this information gives doctors a reason to look into your genetic makeup, and they should refer you to a genetic counselor.

What information can be found from a genetic counselor? Patients can decide to test specific genes or all of their genes. This is a tough decision because if one is to test all of their genes, it is more likely that they could find something or find a lot of unknown problematic genes. For some, this can be too much information. If one decides to test just a set of genes, they are more likely to find what they are looking for. For example, many people come to get genetic testing because of a family history of breast cancer. Genetic counselors can order tests that only look at those specific genes and figure out if any are misspelled and are genetically related. This allows for patients to be proactive, and they also do not have to look at other cancers or mutations in their genes.

Why are genetic counselors important for communities? Genetic counselors are vital in the healthcare system. They are there to provide support to patients, families, and providers about genetic conditions and risks. Genetic disorders and cancers are not uncommon in communities, so a genetic counselor needs to be there to increase the families/patients understanding about the disorder and explain to them the pros and cons of testing, identify helpful psychosocial tools to adjust if an adverse result is reached, reduce anxiety of patients and their families, and educate patients on risk factors of their genetic makeup. Testing is not for everyone because it is a lot of information, and it may be too much for some people. However, it is an option and could provide closure. A lot of rural communities lack this information that could benefit their community. Having a genetic counselor in the community provides knowledge, and knowledge is power.

Here are some websites with more information!

Written By: Cailey Cranny, Family Life Intern, Interdisciplinary Health Sciences, University of Illinois