Genetic counselors assess patients' medical risks based on family history, medical history and diagnoses. Then they discuss the findings with patients, educating them about their risks and whether further testing may help.
Individuals and couples who may benefit from genetic counseling include those who have a history of physical birth defects, inherited disorders, multiple miscarriages, stillbirths or early infant deaths due to genetic abnormalities; those with a history of certain cardiac, cancer, psychiatric or neurogenetic adult disorders; women with high-risk pregnancies; and people in ethnic groups with a higher incidence of disorders such as Tay-Sachs or sickle cell diseases.
Most students enter the field with degrees in genetics, biology, nursing, psychology or social work, according to the National Society of Genetic Counselors (www.nsgc.org). The American Board of Genetic Counseling (http://www.abgc.net) accredits 32 graduate programs in genetic counseling in the U.S. and Canada. Midwestern schools offering the program include the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago and Wayne State University in Detroit.
Students take such classes as molecular biology, physiology, advanced human genetics, behavioral genetics, cytogenetic and molecular diagnostics, according to Bonnie LeRoy, associate professor and director of the Graduate Program of Study in Genetic Counseling at the University of Minnesota. The university also requires students to work with individuals or families in crisis situations, such as at a battered women's shelter, to determine if they have an aptitude for such work.
Not all genetic counselors work in clinics. They may also work in private industry, in the laboratory, in research or in public health, according to Anna Leininger, a genetic counselor in the Cancer Care Center at St. John's Hospital in Maplewood, part of the HealthEast system.
Leininger was fascinated by the science of genetics as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, and knew she wanted to work with people. A professor pointed her to the career and she's never looked back. For her clients, knowledge is power.
"Many people overestimate their risks," Leininger says. "What I can do is present risk information that's logical and in a meaningful way to give people a more realistic view of what it means to be at increased or high risk. People use risk information to make better health decisions."
The job outlook for genetic counselors is bright, according to LeRoy. New graduates may expect to earn at least $55,000, and jobs are plentiful. "Our graduates are usually employed before they graduate," she says.