Job Profile: Genetic Counselor

 

Genes are the hereditary units transferred from parents to children that dictate the sequence of nucleotides on the chromosomes in our cells. Medicine has pinpointed more than 6,000 disorders specifically linked to gene mutations. Some of the most common genetic disorders include Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, and muscular dystrophy. According to NetWellness, around 10 percent of adults and 30 percent of children admitted to U.S. hospitals have inherited diseases. Fortunately, advancements in science have made it possible for skilled healthcare professionals to predict the risk for these disorders. Genetic counselors conduct DNA testing to inform parents on whether their baby is likely to inherit medical complications. They also work with adults to determine the likelihood of developing conditions linked to genes, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Salary

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2,520 genetic counselors employed in the United States earn a mean annual wage of $74,570, or $35.85 per hour. Genetic counselors working in general hospitals and physician offices make slightly less at $72,070 on average. Outpatient care facilities pay considerably better with an average salary of $84,850. The highest-paid genetic counselors bring home a mean yearly income of $90,760 from medical diagnostic laboratories.

Beginning Salary

Newly hired genetic counselors with little experience typically land in the bottom 10th percentile of earnings with annual salaries around $49,760. However, senior genetic counselors with extensive lab skills could eventually break the six-figure mark for over $109,650. Location affects salary growth potential with top-paying states like Maryland and South Carolina offering average income at $91,290 and $91,200 respectively.

Key Responsibilities

Genetic counselors have the primary responsibility of combing through patients’ DNA structure to highlight any structural anomalies that could signal health risk. Not only will counselors draw blood for laboratory analysis, but they’ll also interview individuals or families about their medical histories. Under the microscope, genetic counselors use their keen eye to find mutations that validate or negate concerns over inherited disease. They’ll construct detailed genetic testing reports for the ordering physician. As their title suggests, genetic counselors discuss the results, teach patients about their risks, and offer recommendations to patients. Counselors usually select specialties like prenatal, pediatric, cardiovascular, oncology, or neurogenetics.

Necessary Skills

Practicing as a certified genetic counselor will require in-depth scientific knowledge, especially in biology, to fully understand deoxyribonucleic acid. Communication skills are imperative for genetic counselors to convey complex hereditary data in easy-to-understand ways. Genetic counselors should have the interpersonal ability to collaborate with physicians and other clinicians for complete medical histories. Analytical skills are a must since counselors are constantly involved in turning lab results into risk assessment. It’s important for genetic counselors to have critical inquiry skills to stay up-to-date on the latest medical literature. Genetic counselors should also have the compassion and emotional intelligence to sensitively deliver bad news to hopeful parents or seriously ill adults.

Degree and Education Requirements

Aspiring genetic counselors must attend graduate school to complete a master’s in healthcare degree or higher. Licensure mandates that you complete an ACGC-accredited genetic counseling program. There are currently 36 available across the United States, including Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, Brandeis University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Emory University. Admission to these programs will require at least 120 baccalaureate credits. Most genetics counselors initially major in biology, statistics, psychology, health science, chemistry, and public health. Earning a doctorate in genetics or genomics is wholly voluntary but could segue into academia and laboratory research careers. Those who attend medical school for an M.D. or D.O. would advance as clinical geneticists.

Pros and Cons of the Position

Genetic counseling is a relatively young field that provides both advantages and drawbacks for interested healthcare professionals. On the plus side, genetic counselors reap a yearly salary that’s above the national average with good benefits. Approximately 18 percent of genetic counselors can work part-time for scheduling flexibility. Genetic counseling jobs are booming to cut down the risk for unemployment. Genetic counselors enjoy the intrinsic reward of helping patients predict and prevent the threat of debilitating disabilities like Fragile X syndrome. They’re also able to combine science and healthcare without attending medical school. On the other hand, genetic counselors frequently deal with high emotions that could spark sadness and stress. For the income potential, the education and certification requirements in genetic counseling are quite intensive. Genetic counselors may encounter problems in test interpretation where mutations are virtually undetectable. Keeping oneself constantly informed on the newest genetic testing innovations can be endless too.

Getting Started

Dedication is essential to reach your goal of becoming a genetic counselor. During your bachelor’s study, dip your feet into the field through internships or service learning in counseling settings. Undergraduates should also jump on research opportunities to begin sharpening their analytical skills with DNA. Enrolling in an ACGC-accredited program will come with more lab and practicum rotations. Take courses like metabolic genetics, biostatistics, biochemistry, genetic diagnosis, and counseling ethics. At graduation, you’ll be ready to sit for the American Board of Genetic Counseling certification exam. Consider taking practice tests before taking the 100-question multiple choice exam at your regional location. Around 85 percent of first-time candidates pass, but you can retake it if needed. Credentialed practitioners must complete at least 12.5 continuing education units every five years.

Future Outlook

Now’s an excellent time to show interest in genetic counseling because demand is growing much faster-than-average. The BLS shows that employment of genetic counselors will soar by 29 percent through 2024, which will open 700 jobs in this still-small niche. Unparalleled tech innovations are expanding genomics for even more in-depth analyses. Many patients are seeking prenatal genetic tests before pregnancy, and older adults want to determine their risk for specific cancers for prevention too. That’s mostly because the Affordable Care Act has improved insurance rates, which will cover genetic testing requested by physicians. Genetic counselors will find excellent prospects in general or specialty hospitals, physician offices, universities, outpatient centers, diagnostic labs, and genome facilities.

Overall, genetic counselors play a pivotal role in helping people investigate their familial risks for certain diseases and take steps to protect their health. The U.S. News and World Report placed genetic counseling at #92 among the country’s “100 Best Jobs.” Genetic counselors have one of the health profession’s most stable work schedules for great work-life balance. Six years of post-high school education could equip you for becoming a genetic counselor and answering intricate questions about hereditary.

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