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Children's Wisconsin Genetics and Genomics program genetic counseling

Genetics 102: What is a genetic counselor?

Genes are the blueprint of all living things — our DNA determines the color of our hair, eyes and skin, our height and how big our ears are. Changes in our DNA can also be the underlying cause of some diseases. That’s where the Genetics and Genomics Program at Children’s Wisconsin comes into play. 

This blog post is the latest in our series about the Children’s Wisconsin Genetics and Genomics Program. Out first blog post, “Genetics 101: What to expect from the Genetics and Genomics Program,” can be found here

The Genetics and Genomics Program at Children’s Wisconsin is a leading genetics program in Wisconsin and offers specialized services to help diagnose and treat more than 6,000 different diseases that are caused by genetic variations. When a patient is first referred to the clinic, the first person they’ll meet with is a genetic counselor.  

What is a genetic counselor?

A genetic counselor is a health care professional who works in a medical genetics clinic and in partnership with many other specialists. They act as advocates and educators for patients and families that have or may inherit a genetic condition. Genetic counselors help patients and families navigate the world of genetics by offering education, supportive counseling, risk assessment for conditions that may run in the family, and by interpreting genetic testing results.

Genetic counselors are required to have completed a master’s degree in Genetic Counseling, which is where they learn medical genetics, counseling concepts and participate in patient cases as a student. After completion of their master's program, they will take a board certification exam to become a certified genetic counselor. 

How can a genetic counselor help my child?

Genetic counselors are experts at translating difficult or confusing genetics topics so that patients and families can understand and feel empowered on their medical journey. At an appointment, they will take a detailed family history and assist with gathering health information about your child. Some of their questions may seem odd, but even the smallest details can be important to help the team identify a genetic diagnosis.

The genetic counselor will discuss their findings with the genetics provider to plan out next steps as a team. These steps could be recommendations for genetic testing, referrals to other specialty services, or additional services. 

During the appointment, the genetic counselor will discuss what DNA, genes and chromosomes are and how changes in those genetic building blocks might affect their health and development. The genetic counselor will make sure to explain everything at a level that patients and families can understand. Genetic counselors help put all the pieces of the puzzle together to provide your child the best and safest care. If you think your child should be evaluated in the Children’s Wisconsin Genetics Clinic, please click here.

Why may there be a wait time to see a genetic counselor?

Children’s Wisconsin employs 10 genetic counselors who practice in includes numerous specialty clinics, both within the genetics department and in other departments around campus. However, there are simply not enough genetic counselors to readily meet current patient demand. 

Genetic counseling is a rapidly growing field as demand for genetic services increase. This field is expected to grow by 21 percent by 2029 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, we are happy to announce that the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has recently opened their own genetic counseling training program! If you are interested in learning more about MCW’s Genetic Counseling Training Program, please click here.