What is Genetic Counseling?
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Genetic disorders, or hereditary disorders, can be passed along from parents to their children through their genes. If you are curious about your risk of getting – or passing along – a disorder due to your family medical history, then you want to talk with a genetic counselor.
According to the National Society of Genetic Counselors, these medical professionals can play a crucial role in your health care. Genetic counselors meet with you before and after genetic testing to assess your risk of developing a genetic disorder or passing one along to a child.
Genetic counselors can:
- order genetic tests
- evaluate medical reports and family history of genetic disorders
- review these results
- counsel you on how to understand the results and make decisions about what to do next
What is the value of genetic counseling?
Many people first see a genetic counselor as part of a prenatal visit to determine the risks to their baby, says Samantha Neumann, a genetic counselor with the University of Miami Health System.
But the genetics team at the University of Miami, which was recently ranked #2 in the nation, specializes in patients from all walks of life, including expecting parents, children, and adults.
“Our team has specialties ranging from prenatal to specialized genetic disorders such as vision, hearing loss, neurogenetics, cardiology, and more,” says Neumann. “We can offer counseling for people who may be at risk, as well as offer help for young children or adults with genetic conditions that other specialties are not as familiar with.”
A genetic counselor can help you determine your risk through testing and evaluation of family history. “There are a number of things that go into providing a risk assessment,” says Neumann. “Blood tests can help us understand the inheritance pattern of a disorder. With family history, sometimes we have to do some more digging. If we can actively test other family members, we can get a clearer picture of someone’s risks.”
Perhaps the most important role of a genetic counselor is being your guide.
They help you make difficult decisions or digest tough news. “It’s really a combination of information-giving and helping them reach an informed decision,” she says. “We don’t tell them to do this or do that. Instead, we provide options a, b, or c. Some people already know what the best decision is for them. Still, in other scenarios, like pre-symptomatic testing for Huntington’s disease, we have to offer guidance to help them figure out the best decision.”
The ultimate goal is to equip the patient with the information and education they need for the road ahead. When a patient knows what might come and creates a plan for handling it, they can be better prepared to take on the challenges.
“It’s not all bad news: There is a lot of good news involved, as well,” says Neumann. “Based on an individual’s background, we can help them analyze their risks and make a plan.”
Nobody has a perfect family history.
People often think of genetic counseling as a specific medical field for expecting parents or people with a strong history of genetic disorders. Neumann says the value of her team’s services can extend far beyond that.
“Everyone can benefit from a visit with a genetic counselor,” she says. “Nobody has a perfect family history. Even if you’re not from a family with a genetic history of issues, it will still benefit you to know your risks.”
Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.