Basic guide: What do genetic counselors do?

Genetic counselors assess individual or family risk for a variety of inherited conditions, such as genetic disorders and birth defects.

They provide information and advice to other healthcare providers, or to individuals and families concerned with the risk of inherited conditions.
Basic guide: What do genetic counselors do?Duties of genetic counselors

Genetic counselors typically do the following:

  • Analyze genetic information to identify patients or families at risk for specific disorders and syndromes
  • Write detailed consultation reports to provide information on complex genetic concepts for patients or referring physicians
  • Discuss testing options and the associated risks, benefits, and limitations with patients and families
  • Interview patients to obtain comprehensive medical histories and document the findings
  • Interpret laboratory results and communicate findings to patients or physicians
  • Counsel patients and family members by providing information, education, or reassurance regarding genetic risks and inherited conditions
  • Determine patient treatment plans by reviewing laboratory work, literature, and patient histories
  • Participate in professional organizations or conferences to keep abreast of developments in genetics and genomics

Genetic counselors identify specific genetic (inherited) disorders or syndromes through the study of genetics.

For parents who are expecting children, counselors use genetics to predict whether a baby is likely to have hereditary disorders, such as Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis, among others. Genetic counselors can also test whether an adult is likely to develop chronic disease, or cancer.

Counselors identify these conditions by studying patients’ genes through DNA testing. Counselors often perform the lab tests themselves, although sometimes they have medical laboratory technologists perform the tests, which they then interpret and use for counseling. They share this information with other health professionals, such as physicians, and with patients and their families.

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According to a 2012 survey from the National Society of Genetic Counselors, approximately two-thirds of genetic counselors work in traditional areas of genetic counseling: prenatal, cancer, and pediatric. The survey noted that the number of specialized fields for genetic counselors has increased.

More genetic counselors are specializing in fields such as cardiovascular health, genomic medicine, neuropsychiatric genetics, and assisted reproductive technologies.

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