What Is Genetic Counseling?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on February 10, 2021
3 min read

Many health conditions run in families. Doctors call these “genetic” or “hereditary” conditions. If you have a parent or grandparent with a serious health problem, you may want to know if you’re at high risk for the disease. Likewise, you may want to know if you or your partner could pass along a hereditary condition to your baby.

To get some answers to these questions, you might consider genetic counseling. Genetic counselors do more than just help you understand the chances that a hereditary condition could pass from one generation to another. They can also help you deal with the emotional side of how genetic conditions can affect a family.

You might consider it if you’re worried your baby will be born with a birth defect that has affected other family members.

You might also look into it if your parents or other relatives have a certain health issue, like cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Genetic testing will reveal whether you carry the genes that make it more likely that you, too, will develop those conditions.

There are many other reasons to seek out genetic counseling. For instance, if you’re:

  • Planning to have a baby and want to learn more about screening for genetic conditions
  • A woman who has had trouble getting pregnant or had several miscarriages
  • A mother who had a baby with a genetic birth defect and are concerned about it happening again
  • Curious about your family’s history of genetic conditions
  • Looking for screening information about genetic conditions common in specific ethnic groups, such as sickle-cell anemia among African-Americans
  • Seeking information on how genetic testing is done

Genetic counselors are trained in psychological counseling, as well as genetics, so they can also help to give you some perspective. For example, they can help you answer important questions, like: Do you want to know about a genetic condition, or not? If so, what will you do with that information? How will this affect your family? If the information you receive is troubling, a genetic counselor can help you deal with the emotional impact.

You’ll start by collecting the medical histories of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. This includes:

  • Information about birth defects in your family
  • Diseases and other medical conditions of your relatives
  • Ages at which relatives were diagnosed with a particular condition
  • Ages at which relatives died (if this is relevant)

You should also bring as much information about your personal medical history as you can. Write down any questions you’d like to ask. This might be a new experience, so feel free to ask anything.

Yes, in many cases. But check with your insurance company to be sure.

Genetic counselors usually work in a hospital or clinic. But they also work in public health departments, laboratories, universities, and other educational institutions. Some of the areas they specialize in include:

If you’re not sure how to get started or how to find genetic counseling services, talk to your doctor or local hospital. You can also visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors website. They offer an online tool to help you find a specialist in your area.