The menu of genetic assays available today introduces a new realm of complexity to the normal testing process. While laboratorians are well aware of the necessity for test validation, for the most part, test verification, or ordering the correct test, is left to providers. Considering the new and unique role of genetic tests in healthcare, many laboratories have added genetic counselors to guide practitioners, patients, and families through the ordering process and, importantly, through interpretation of these expensive and intricate tests.
What is a Genetic Counselor?
The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC) defines the specialty in this way: "Genetic counselors help people understand the medical, psychological, and familial implications of genetic contribution to disease." The profession has experienced tremendous growth recently, with a 400% increase in since 1992. The U.S. has 31 masters' degree genetic counselor (GC) training programs, all of which are accredited by the American Board of Genetic Counseling, and 5–12 students apply annually for each training spot. These applicants typically have an undergraduate degree in a physical or social science. Although prerequisites differ for each program, they generally include biology, chemistry, psychology, biochemistry, basic genetics, and statistics. Advocacy as a volunteer in a counseling setting and interning with a certified GC make students more competitive for these highly sought after slots. Each year, 250–300 graduates enter the field after 21 months of rigorous training, which includes completion of a unique research study. After graduation, GCs must pass the NSCG certification exam. Several states also require licensure. GCs abide by a code of ethics and regularly updated practice guidelines to ensure the best possible patient care.
In addition to oversight of certification, NSGC members actively engage in genetic testing issues. Their leadership spearheads public relations efforts to raise awareness of the valuable role genetic counselors play in healthcare.
The author gratefully acknowledges the valuable input of Rena Vanzo, MS, LCGC, a member of the genetic counseling team at Lineagen, Inc.