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Genetic counselors play an increasingly important role in patient care. So what exactly is a genetic counselor?
“Genetic counselors have master’s degrees with specific training in medical genetics and counseling,” said Marshfield Clinic genetic counselor Kyle Salsbery. “We interpret genetic test results and guide and support patients who are seeking genetic information.”
Salsbery said working with patients to evaluate their genetic outlook requires gathering and interpreting medical histories of patients and their families, educating patients and families about specific conditions and helping people understand what genetic information and test results mean.
“We also work to connect patients and families with resources that may be helpful to them depending on their situation,” Salsbery said. “A big emphasis of genetic counseling is to help patients make informed decisions about their health.”
Dealing with uncertainty
Putting genetic test results in context for each patient is important as everyone’s individual situation is different. Salsbery said that sometimes genetic testing can produce inconclusive results, and he helps guide patients through that uncertainty. He noted that even if a patient’s genetic testing shows he or she does not have a specific disease or risk factor, it is still important for the patient to be aware of their family history.
“Genetic testing is not perfect. It’s not 100 percent conclusive all the time,” Salsbery said. “Even if we can’t point to a specific test result saying you’re not at risk for a certain disease, it’s possible to still be at risk. That’s where knowing your family history is crucial.”
Where genetic counselors fit on your health care team
At Marshfield Clinic, Salsbery said care providers identify patients who may need a genetic evaluation and then refer those individuals to a genetic counselor.
“Genetic counseling within health care just continues to grow,” Salsbery said. “As this field continues to grow and advancements are made, I see the role of genetic counseling really evolving for patients in their health care experience. It’s really all about equipping patients and their families with as much information as possible so they can be proactive in their health.”
Another emerging technology, telehealth, has increased access to genetic counseling. Salsbery said he can see his patients and advise them even if they are not in the same city by using telehealth services.
For those aware of a family history of a genetic condition, Salsbery says you may want to be proactive in seeking genetic counseling. If you’re interested in genetic counseling, discuss your options with your primary care provider.