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What is Genetic Counseling?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 August 2016
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Genetic counseling is a service which is offered to patients who may be at risk of inherited diseases. It is also offered to expecting parents who are concerned about the genes which they may pass down. A genetic counseling session is designed to open communication, providing useful medical facts and helping patients make decisions and advocate for themselves with medical professionals. This medical field has been around since the 1970s; the first genetic counseling training program in the United States opened in 1971.

Requirements to become a genetic counselor vary, depending on the region in which one wishes to practice. As a general rule, candidates complete a master's program in genetics and counseling, and then they must pass an examination administered by a national genetic counseling program. During their training, genetic counselors will have a chance to interact with patients in a clinical setting, and to amass fieldwork hours which will help them professionally.

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There are several reasons to seek genetic counseling, and in some cases patients may be referred. Parents are commonly sent to a genetic counselor when a doctor thinks that they may pass dangerous traits on to their children, and parents with failed pregnancies may choose to attend genetic counseling to find out way and to take steps to prevent early termination, should they decide to try again. Patients who have been diagnosed with illnesses which have a genetic link are also sent to genetic counseling, as are some patients with a family history of genetic problems. People can also opt for genetic counseling out of curiosity.

During a genetic counseling session, the counselor will take down a family history and discuss the reasons the patient opted for counseling. If the counselor thinks it is necessary, he or she will recommend genetic testing, which will typically be performed by a doctor. Once the testing is complete, the patient meets with the counselor again to discuss the results and their ramifications. For example, if a woman tests positive for a mutation on her BRCA1 gene, she may want to alert family members so that they can be tested as well, as this mutation is linked with breast cancer.

If a patient does test positive for a mutation, the counselor will discuss the effect that this may have on the patient's life. Genetic counseling offers information about the probability of problems arising in the future, along with steps to prevent, diagnose, and treat various illnesses with a genetic component. Since a diagnosis of a dangerous mutation can also be a traumatic event, genetic counseling also offers a space to process serious news and ask questions about it.

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