Genetic counseling

Genetic counseling is the process of advising individuals and families affected by or at risk of genetic disorders to help them understand and adapt to the medical, psychological and familial implications of genetic contributions to disease.[1] The process integrates:

  • Interpretation of family and medical histories to assess the chance of disease occurrence or recurrence
  • Education about inheritance, testing, management, prevention, resources
  • Counseling to promote informed choices and adaptation to the risk or condition.

History of genetic counseling

The practice of advising people about inherited traits began around the turn of the 20th century, shortly after William Bateson suggested that the new medical and biological study of heredity be called “genetics”.[2] Heredity became intertwined with social reforms when the field of modern eugenics took form. Although initially well-intentioned, ultimately the movement had disastrous consequences. Many states in the United States had laws mandating the sterilization of certain individuals, others were not allowed to immigrate and by the 1930s these ideas were accepted by many other countries including in Germany where euthanasia for the “genetically defective” was legalized in 1939.[2] This part of the history of genetics is at the heart of the now “non directive” approach to genetic counseling.[3]

Sheldon Clark Reed coined the term genetic counseling in 1947 and published the book Counseling in Medical Genetics in 1955.[4] Most of the early genetic counseling clinics were run by non-medical scientists or by those who were not experienced clinicians.[5] With the growth in knowledge of genetic disorders and the appearance of medical genetics as a distinct specialty in the 1960s, genetic counseling progressively became medicalized, representing one of the key components of clinical genetics.[6] It was not, though, until later that the importance of a firm psychological basis was recognized and became an essential part of genetic counseling, the writings of Seymour Kessler making a particular contribution to this.[7] The first master's degree genetic counseling program in the United States was founded in 1969 at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.[8] In 1979, the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) was founded.[9]

Genetic counselors

Professional roles

Genetic counselors work in a wide variety of patient-facing and non patient-facing settings.[10]

Clinical genetic counselors may provide general care, or specialize in one or more areas. Examples include:

  • Prenatal and pre-conception – for women and their partners who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant
  • Pediatric – for children with genetic, or suspected genetic, conditions and their family members
  • Cancer – for patients with cancer and/or their family members
  • Cardiovascular – for patients with diseases of the heart or circulatory system and/or their family members
  • Neurology – for patients with diseases of the brain and nervous system and/or their family members
  • Assisted reproductive technology / infertility – for couples struggling with fertility or who are carriers of genetic diseases
  • Psychiatric – for patients living with mental illness and/or their family members

Outside the clinic, genetic counselors work in areas such as laboratories, research, education, public health settings, and corporate environments. Examples of roles include:

  • Laboratory – Utilization management, provider and patient support, variant classification, and reporting
  • Research – Coordinating research studies, patient recruitment, data collection and interpretation, manuscript preparation and grant writing
  • Education – Professors, directors of genetic counseling training programs
  • Public health – Newborn screening programs, population screening programs
  • Non-profit – Patient support and advocacy organizations
  • Corporate – Dedicated services for employees and their families


A genetic counselor is an expert with a Master of Science degree in genetic counseling. Programs in North America are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling (ACGC). There are currently 45 accredited programs in the United States, four accredited programs in Canada, and three programs with the intent to become accredited.[11] Students enter the field from a variety of disciplines, including biology/biological sciences and social sciences such as psychology.[12] Graduate school coursework includes topics such as human genetics, embryology, ethics, research, and counseling theory and techniques. Clinical training including supervised rotations in prenatal, pediatric, adult, cancer, and other subspecialty clinics, as well as non-patient facing rotations in laboratories. Research training typically culminates in a capstone or thesis project.


In the United States genetic counselors are certified by the American Board of Genetic Counseling. In Canada, genetic counselors are certified by the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors.[13]

Graduates from an American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) accredited program who have met specific criteria are eligible to take the examination which is offered twice per year by the ABGC. Although not every company requires its counselors to possess a certification, the certification shows that the practitioner has met the standards "necessary to provide competent genetic counseling services".[14]

State licensure

As of May 2019, 29 states have passed genetic counselor licensure bills that require genetic counselors to meet a certain set of standards to practice. These states are Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Washington. Almost every other state in the US is in the process of obtaining genetic counseling licensure.[15]

Although genetic counseling has existed for over four decades, the first licenses for genetic counselors were not issued until 2002. Utah was the first state to do so. The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) has since encouraged more states to license genetic counselors before they are allowed to practice. ASHG argues that requiring practitioners to go through the necessary training and testing to obtain a license will ensure quality genetic services as well as allow for reimbursement for counselors’ services. Laws requiring licensure ensure that "professionals who call themselves genetic counselors are able to properly explain complicated test results that could confuse patients and families making important health decisions".[16]

Reimbursement and recognition

Insurance companies usually do not reimburse for unlicensed genetic counselors’ services. Patients who may benefit from genetic counseling may not be able to afford the service due to the expensive out-of-pocket cost. In addition, licensure allows genetic counselors to be searchable in most insurance companies’ databases which gives genetic counselors increased opportunities for earning revenue and clients the opportunity to see "the level of coverage insurers provide for their services".[16]

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) does not currently recognize genetic counselors as healthcare providers and therefore does not reimburse for genetic counseling services unless they are provided by a physician or nurse practitioner. On June 12, 2019, H.R. 3235 "Access to Genetic Counselor Services Act of 2019," was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) and U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pennsylvania). H.R. 3235 would authorize CMS to recognize certified genetic counselors as healthcare providers and to cover services furnished by genetic counselors under part B of the Medicare program. Genetic counselors are those licensed by states as such, or, for those in states without licensure, the Secretary of Health and Human Services will set criteria through regulation (likely ABGC certification). Genetic counselors would be paid at 85% of the physician fee schedule. Other providers currently providing genetic counseling services will not be affected by the bill.[17][18]

Counseling session structure

The goals of genetic counseling are to increase understanding of genetic diseases, discuss disease management options, and explain the risks and benefits of testing.[19] Counseling sessions focus on giving vital, unbiased information and non-directive assistance in the patient's decision-making process. Seymour Kessler, in 1979, first categorized sessions in five phases: an intake phase, an initial contact phase, the encounter phase, the summary phase, and a follow-up phase.[20] The intake and follow-up phases occur outside of the actual counseling session. The initial contact phase is when the counselor and families meet and build rapport. The encounter phase includes dialogue between the counselor and the client about the nature of screening and diagnostic tests. The summary phase provides all the options and decisions available for the next step. If patients wish to go ahead with testing, an appointment is organized and the genetic counselor acts as the person to communicate the results. Result delivery can happen both in person or via phone. Often counselors will call out results to avoid patients having to come back in as results can take weeks to be processed. If further counseling is needed in a more personal setting, or it is determined that additional family members should be tested, a secondary appointment can be made.

Reasons for testing and sub-specialties

Detecting conditions

Diagnostic testing occurs when an individual is showing signs or symptoms associated with a specific condition. Genetic testing can be used to arrive at a definitive diagnosis in order to provide better prognosis as well as medical management and/or treatment options. Testing can reveal conditions that—while debilitating without treatment—can be mild or asymptomatic with early treatment (such as phenylketonuria). Genetic tests are available for a number of genetic conditions, including but not limited to: Down syndrome, sickle cell disease, Tay–Sachs disease, muscular dystrophy. Establishing a genetic diagnosis alerts any other at-risk individuals in the family to consider testing, if appropriate.

Any reproductive risks (e.g. a chance to have a child with the same diagnosis) can also be explored after a diagnosis. Many disorders cannot occur unless both the mother and father pass on their genes, such as cystic fibrosis; this is known as autosomal recessive inheritance. Other autosomal dominant diseases can be inherited from one parent, such as Huntington disease and DiGeorge syndrome. Yet other genetic disorders are caused by an error or mutation occurring during the cell division process (e.g. aneuploidy) and are not hereditary.

Screening tests are often used prior to diagnostic testing, designed to separate people according to a fixed characteristic or property, with the intention of detecting early evidence of disease. For example, if a screening test during a pregnancy (such as maternal blood screening or ultrasound) reveals a risk of a health issue or genetic condition, patients are encouraged to receive genetic counseling to learn additional information regarding the suspected condition and about their options with discussion of management, therapy and treatments available for the conditions, including those after delivery, and those during pregnancy, such as the option to terminate the pregnancy. Patients may decline additional screening and testing, elect to proceed to diagnostic testing, or pursue further screening tests to refine the risk during the pregnancy.

Presymptomatic or predictive testing occurs when an individual knows of a specific diagnosis (typically adult onset) in their family and has other affected relatives, but they themselves do not manifest any clinical findings at the time when they seek testing. The decision about whether or not to proceed with presymptomatic testing should entail a thoughtful approach and consideration of various medical, reproductive, social, insurance, and financial factors, with no “right” or “wrong” answer. Availability of treatment and medical management options for each specific diagnosis, as well as the genetics and inheritance pattern of the particular condition should be reviewed as inherited conditions can have reduced penetrance.

Insurance and legal issues should also be discussed during genetic counseling. There are laws in the United States such as GINA (Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act) and ACA that provide certain protections against discrimination for individuals with genetic diagnoses.

Adult genetics

Adult or general genetics clinics serve patients who are diagnosed with genetic conditions that begin to show signs or symptoms in adulthood. Many genetic conditions have varying ages of onset, ranging from an infantile form to an adult form. Genetic counseling can facilitate the decision making process by providing the patient/family with education about the genetic condition as well as the medical management options available to individuals at risk of developing the condition. Having the genetic information of other members of the family opens the door to asking important questions about the pattern of inheritance of specific disease‐causing mutations. Whilst there is a wealth of literature that describes how families communicate information surrounding single genes, there is very little which explores the experience of communication about family genomes.[21] Adult-onset disorders may overlap multiple specialties.[22]

ART/Infertility genetics

Genetic counseling is an integral part of the process for patients utilizing preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), formerly called preimplantation genetic diagnosis.[23] There are three types of PGT and all require in vitro fertilization (IVF) using assisted reproductive technology (ART).[24] PGT-M, for monogenic disorders, involves testing embryos for a specific condition before it is implanted into the mother. This technique is currently being done for disorders with childhood onset, such as Cystic Fibrosis, Tay-Sachs and Muscular Dystrophy, as well as adult-onset conditions, including Huntington's Disease, Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Syndrome, and Lynch Syndrome. PGT-SR, for structural rearrangements, involves testing embryos to establish a pregnancy unaffected by a structural chromosomal abnormality (translocation). PGT-A, for aneuploidy, was formerly called preimplantation genetic screening, and involved testing embryos to identify any de novo aneuploidy.

Genetic counseling can also involve medical evaluation and clinical work-up for couples with infertility and/or recurrent pregnancy loss, as these histories can be associated with parental chromosome aberrations (such as inversions or translocations) and other genetic conditions.

Cardiovascular genetics

A rapidly expanding field in genetic counseling is cardiovascular genetics. More than 1 in 200 people have an inherited cardiovascular disease. Hereditary cardiac conditions range from common diseases, such as high cholesterol and coronary artery disease, to rare diseases like Long QT Syndrome, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, aortic and vascular diseases.  Genetic counselors who specialize in cardiovascular disease have developed skills specific to the management of and counseling for cardiovascular disorders. Cardiovascular genetic counselors are also integral in local and national efforts to prevent sudden cardiac death (the leading cause of sudden death in young people) by identifying patients with known or suspected heritable cardiovascular diseases and promoting cascade family screening or testing of at-risk relatives.

Common referral reasons include:

Guidelines on cardiovascular genetics are published by multiple professional societies.[25][26][27][28][29][30]

Hereditary cancer genetics

Cancer genetic counselors see individuals with a personal diagnosis and/or family history of cancer or symptoms of an inherited cancer syndrome.[31] Genetic counselors take a family history and assess for hereditary risk, or risk that can be passed down from generation to generation. If indicated, they can coordinate genetic testing, typically via blood or saliva sample, to evaluate for hereditary cancer risk.  Personalized medical management and cancer screening recommendations can be provided based on results of genetic testing and/or the family history of cancer. While most cancers are sporadic (not inherited), some are more likely to have a hereditary factor, particularly when occurring at young ages or when clustering in families. These include common cancers such as breast, ovarian, colon and uterine cancers, as well as rare tumor types.[32] General referral indications can include, but are not limited to:


Genetic counselors specializing in neurogenetics are involved in the care of individuals who have or are at risk to develop conditions affecting the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) or peripheral nervous system (the nerves that leave the spinal cord and go to other places in the body, such as the feet and hands, skeletal muscles, and internal organs). Effects of these conditions can lead to various impairments some examples of which include cognitive decline, intellectual disability, seizures, uncontrolled movements (e.g. ataxia, chorea), muscle weakness, paralysis, or atrophy. Examples of neurogenetic disorders include:

Pediatric genetics

Pediatric genetic counseling can be indicated for newborns, infants, children and their families. General referral indications[56] can include:  

Prenatal genetics

Prenatal genetics involves services for women either during or prior to a pregnancy.

General indications for referral to genetic counseling in the preconception or prenatal setting may include, but are not limited to:[57]

Prenatal genetic counseling may help with the decision-making process by walking patients through examples of what some people might do in similar situations, and their rationale for choosing that option. Decisions made by patients are affected by factors including timing, accuracy of information provided by tests, and risk and benefits of the tests. This discussion enables patients to place the information and circumstances into the context of their own lives, and in the context of their own values.[74] They may choose to undergo noninvasive screening (e.g. ultrasound, triple screen, cell-free fetal DNA screening) or invasive diagnostic testing (amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling). Invasive diagnostic tests possess a small risk of miscarriage (1–2%) but provide more definitive results. Testing is offered to provide a definitive answer regarding the presence of a certain genetic condition or chromosomal abnormality.

Psychiatric genetics

Psychiatric genetic counseling is a sub-specialty within genetic counseling focused on helping people living with a psychiatric disorder and/or their family members understand both the genetic and environmental factors that contributed to their illness and address associated emotions such as guilt or self-blame.[75] Genetic counselors also discuss strategies to promote recovery and protect mental health and address any questions on chances for recurrence in other family members. While currently there is no single gene solely responsible for causing a psychiatric disorder, there is strong evidence from family, twin studies, and genome-wide-association studies that both multiple genes and environment interact together.[76] Like other areas of genetic counseling, patients at all different stages of life (pediatric, adult, prenatal)[77][78] can have psychiatric genetic counseling. Since the etiology of psychiatric disorders is complex and not fully understood, the utility of genetic testing is not as clear as it is in Mendelian or single gene disorders.[79] Research has shown that individuals who receive psychiatric genetic counseling have significant increases in feelings of empowerment and self-efficacy after genetic counseling.[80]

Psychiatric genetic counselors can help "dispel mistaken notions about psychiatric disorders, calm needless anxiety, and help those at risk to draw up a rational plan of action based on the best available information".[81]

Psychosocial aspects of genetic counseling

There are different approaches to genetic counseling. Some counselors favor a more purely psycho-educational approach while others incorporate more psycho-therapeutic techniques. Genetic counseling is psycho-educational as patients "learn how genetics contributes to their health risks and then process what this means and how it feels."[82]


"Whether the process of genetic counseling is a form of psychotherapy is up for debate". The relationship between the client and counselor is similar as are the goals of the sessions. As a psychotherapist aims to help his client improve his wellbeing, a genetic counselor also helps his client to address a "situational health threat that similarly threatens client wellbeing". Due to the lack of studies which compare genetic counseling to the practice of psychotherapy, it is hard to say with certainty whether genetic counseling can be "conceptualized as a short-term, applied, specific type of psychotherapy". However, there few existing studies suggest that genetic counseling falls "significantly short of psychotherapeutic counseling" because genetic counseling sessions primarily consist of the distribution of information without much emphasis placed on explaining any long-term impacts to the client.[83]

Genetic counselors as support

Genetic counselors provide supportive counseling to families, serve as patient advocates and refer individuals and families to community or state support services. They serve as educators and resource people for other health care professionals and for the general public. Many engage in research activities related to the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling. When communicating increased risk, counselors anticipate the likely distress and prepare patients for the results. Counselors help clients cope with and adapt to the emotional, psychological, medical, social, and economic consequences of the test results.

Each individual considers their family needs, social setting, cultural background, and religious beliefs when interpreting their risk.[84] Clients must evaluate their reasoning to continue with testing at all. Counselors are present to put all the possibilities in perspective and encourage clients to take time to think about their decision. When a risk is found, counselors frequently reassure parents that they were not responsible for the result. An informed choice without pressure or coercion is made when all relevant information has been given and understood.

After counseling for other hereditary conditions, the patient may be presented with the option of having genetic testing. In some circumstances no genetic testing is indicated, other times it may be useful to begin the testing process with an affected family member. The genetic counselor also reviews the advantages and disadvantages of genetic testing with the patient.

Attitudes toward genetic counseling and genetic testing

Many studies have examined the attitudes of the lay public toward genetic counseling and genetic testing. Barriers to obtaining genetic counseling include lack of understanding of genetics by both patients and healthcare providers, concerns about cost and insurance, and fears of stigma and/or discrimination.[85][86][87]

No simple correlation has been found between the change in technology to the changes in values and beliefs towards genetic testing.[88]

Genetic Counseling in the Media

The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) blog provides information about current topics in genetic testing and genetic counseling.[89]


In 2018, there are nearly 7000 genetic counselors practicing worldwide, across at least 28 countries.[90]


Genetic counseling in China (mainland) has been primarily provided by pediatricians or obstetricians for prenatal or birth defect diagnoses. Most genetic tests can only be performed in academic institutions as research tests or in commercial direct-to-consumer companies for non-clinical use.[91]

In China, genetic counseling is steered by the Chinese Board of Genetic Counseling (CBGC),[92] a not-for-profit organization. CBGC is composed of senior experts engaged in genetic education and research. CBGC is committed to establishing standardized procedures of genetic counseling, training qualified genetic counselors, improving health for all, and reducing the incidence of birth defects. CBGC was established in 2015 and is the major professional organization for genetic counselors in mainland China, providing training through short term online and in-person lectures, educational conferences, and certification for trainees.    

Genetics education in China began in the 1980s when selected medical schools began offering genetics courses that focused predominantly on molecular genetics and had limited clinical content.[91][93] At present, there are no official master's level graduate programs in genetic counseling or clinical genetics in China, and there is great variability in the duration and content of genetics curricula among medical schools and professional organizations.

The Chinese Ministry of Health has not yet recognized genetic counselors as an independent health care occupation. There are no official statistics for the number of health care professionals (e.g., physicians, nurses, and lab technicians) who are providing genetic counseling services in China.

South Africa

Genetic Counselling is a developing field in South Africa.[94] Currently, there are about 20 registered genetic counsellors practicing in the country. In South Africa, genetic counsellors work within academic institutions, in the private health sector and more recently, private genetic laboratories. A few qualified genetic counsellors have been employed outside of the country or in other professions, owing to funding limitations that have impacted employment opportunities, particularly in the academic/public health sector.

The first Genetic Counselling Programme in South Africa started in 1989 at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, in the Gauteng province.[95] A second programme started in 2004 at the University of Cape Town in the Western Cape province.[96] These are the only two programmes offering Masters level genetic counselling training in South Africa. Currently these courses are running at full capacity.  This is a two-year degree and includes a research component. The majority of students enter the Masters programme with a science background but those with a psychology background are also be considered.

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA)[97] requires two years of internship. Often the first year forms part of the master's degree in Genetic Counselling and a further 12-month internship thereafter. Genetic Counsellors are required by law to register with the HPCSA in order to practice as genetic counsellors. At the end of the training period, registrants submit a portfolio to HPCSA for assessment. If successful, the intern will be registered with the HPCSA and will be able to practice as a Genetic Counsellor in South Africa.

There is a professional organisation for Genetic Counsellors in South Africa, Genetic Counselling South Africa (GC-SA), which provides information and guidance to the HPCSA and others regarding professional issues.[98] The GCSA is a focus group of the South African Society of Human Genetics (SASHG).[99]

United Kingdom

The majority of Genetic Counsellors in the UK work in the National Health Service (NHS)[100] in one of the 33 Regional Clinical Genetics Services (some renamed Genomic Medicine Centres in England), Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Others work in specialist roles in the NHS, education, policy or research. A minority work in the private sector.

The Association of Genetic Nurses and Counsellors (AGNC) is the UK's professional organisation representing genetic counsellors, genetic nurses and non-medical, patient-facing staff working within the discipline of Clinical Genetics.[101] There are currently (March 2018) 330 AGNC members within the UK. The AGNC is one of the constituent groups of the British Society for Genetic Medicine (BSGM).[102]

The first 2-year MSc in Genetic Counselling program established in the UK was from the University of Manchester 1992, followed by Cardiff University in Wales in 2000. 2016 saw major changes in the way genetic counsellors are trained in England. A 3-year training programme funded by Health Education England, the Scientist Training Programme (STP) uses a combination of work-based training in Genomic Medicine Centres and a part-time MSc in Genetics (Genomic Counselling) from the University of Manchester. Recruitment is performed nationally through the National School of Healthcare Science (NSHCS). A 3-year part-time MSc in Genetic and Genomic Counselling is also now delivered by Cardiff University, through blended learning, with most of the teaching delivered online, alongside some short face-to-face teaching blocks in Wales. A 2-year MSc Genetic and Genomic Counselling program began at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 2016. Prerequisites for acceptance on all the programmes include a degree in a relevant science or a nursing or midwifery qualification, and experience in a caring role.  All genetic counselling training programmes are accredited by the UK Genetic Counsellor Registration Board (GCRB) and the European Board of Medical Genetics (EBMG).[103]

Genetic counsellors in the UK are regulated through the Genetic Counsellor Registration Board (GCRB),[104] although currently GCRB registration is voluntary.[105] The GCRB registry was accredited in 2016 by the Professional Standards Authority under its Accredited Registers programme. Over 200 genetic counsellors are currently registered through the GCRB. Genetic Counsellors trained through the STP programme are expected to be eligible to apply for statutory regulation through the Health Care Professions Council and it is planned that soon there will be equivalence arrangements with the GCRB to ensure statutory regulation for GCRB registered genetic counsellors.

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Further reading

  • Alexandra Minna Stern, Telling Genes: The Story of Genetic Counseling in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012
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