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Obscure Careers: Genetic Counselor

Among careers in health care, that of a genetic counselor is relatively obscure, despite the fact that genetic counseling first emerged more than 50 years ago, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, many people don't know what a genetic counselor is until they need one. Genetic counselors are often the knowledgeable, compassionate medical professionals that families turn to when they need help understanding or diagnosing a genetic condition or disorder in their family.

What is a genetic counselor?

To put it simply, genetic counselors are medical professionals who have specialized training in the area of genetics and counseling. Genetic counselors look at the genetic history of a person or family to determine what genetic conditions might be passed down through generations, then explain the risks of inheritance, analyze the disorder for that particular family and discuss the available options. For those families who are already dealing with the reality of genetic disorders or birth defects in the family, genetic counselors provide information and counseling to help them understand and cope with the issue.

The work of a genetic counselor goes further than counseling and test results. Genetic counselors also serve as advocates for their patients, helping them find state or community support services. They serve as educators who dispel myths about genetic disorders for other health care practitioners and the general public. Some might move into research, where they search for the reasons behind certain genetic defects or disorders.

Genetic counselors might often specialize in a particular area of genetics in order to focus their care, counseling and knowledge. For instance, a genetic counselor who helps women determine their risk of breast cancer through family genetics might focus only on familial cancer risk counseling. Other genetic counselors might work closely with doctors providing prenatal care to women who have an abnormal ultrasound or abnormal blood test results.

How to become a genetic counselor

In most cases, those who want to pursue a career in genetic counseling might prefer to earn a bachelor's degree in medical sciences, psychology or health care; however, those with a bachelor's degree in an unrelated field can still apply for the master's degree program in genetic counseling. Those who have already pursued a career in nursing, psychology, public health, social work and the like might choose to expand their career horizon and pursue their master's degree in genetic counseling. Some careers, such as those in research or education, might require a doctorate in the field.

According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, there are 32 colleges and universities in the United States that offer graduate programs in genetic counseling. The American Board of Genetic Counseling oversees certification for genetic counselors; certification can be obtained only after earning a master's degree in genetic counseling and sitting for the Certification Examination. The period of certification is limited, and can be renewed by taking the test again or by keeping up with continuing education requirements.

A day in the life of a genetic counselor

Most genetic counselors work in health care institutions, but some work for non-profit organizations or in private practice. Depending upon the practice, genetic counselors might meet face-to-face with patients, talk at speaking engagements, read over or conduct research, or consult with other medical professionals on various cases.

When a genetic counselor works with individuals or families, the sessions can be both informative and emotional. Therefore, the genetic counselor must be able to condense complex information into a form that individuals without a medical background can easily understand. They must also have the ability to console and counsel those who are facing enormously personal, emotional decisions. Many professionals find that genetic counseling offers the opportunity to make the most of their medical science skills while allowing them to be counselors and advocates at a time families desperately need their help.

Some genetic counselors might choose to tweak their qualifications to work behind the scenes in related positions that allow them to focus on research and development of new technologies. For instance, a bacterial geneticist might look at the role bacteria plays in genetic makeup, while a bioethicist might study how new advances in genome science affects the way the public views health and morality, or a clinical cytogeneticist might study chromosomal abnormalities.

According to the National Human Genome Research Center (NHGRC), genetic counselors may now be in more demand as medical professionals focus on genetic science.

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.

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