Division of Genetics and Genomics Genetic Counseling

Have you or a family member just received a diagnosis of an inherited condition? Do you have a family history of a genetic condition, and think you may be affected or at risk? Are you concerned about having a child with an inherited condition?

These are all reasons people seek genetic counseling. Geneticists (physicians trained in genetics) and genetic counselors provide genetic counseling, and are an integral part of the Division of Genetics and Genomics and its specialty programs.

Genetic counselors are trained to help families understand complex genetic issues while supporting their emotional needs. They can provide you with detailed information on genetic testing options, and arrange testing for you or your child and family members. If you or your child has an inherited condition, the counselor can help you understand more about the condition, its cause, its medical implications and how that condition may run in families.

Our genetic counselors also work closely with the Advanced Fetal Care Center (AFCC), which supports the needs of expectant families whose unborn babies have been diagnosed with or are suspected of having congenital anomalies, from diagnosis and counseling through treatment and follow-up. 

Genetic counseling sessions generally last 30-60 minutes, depending on the complexity of the disorder.

What kind of training does a genetic counselor have?

Genetic counselors have a minimum of a master’s degree in genetic counseling or a related field, including extensive training in human genetics, medical genetics, molecular genetics, and counseling. The American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC) offers a certification examination for this discipline. All genetic counselors in Massachusetts are licensed by the Board of Registration of Genetic Counselors.

Prenatal genetic counseling

Prospective parents may want to consider genetic counseling before pregnancy if either parent has an inherited condition or is a known or suspected carrier. Parents with a family history of any inherited disorder should also consider genetic counseling, as should parents with a previous child or a family history of any of the following:

  • intellectual disability
  • chromosome changes (such as translocations, deletions, duplications)
  • congenital anomalies (such as cleft lip/palate, heart defects, spina bifida)
  • short stature
  • single-gene conditions (such as cystic fibrosis or PKU)
  • hearing or visual impairments
  • learning disabilities
  • psychiatric disorders
  • cancers
  • multiple pregnancy losses

Prenatal genetic counseling is also recommended when:

  • a pregnant mother is age 35 or older, has a screening test or a prenatal ultrasound result suggesting a risk for a genetic condition, has been exposed to alcohol, tobacco or drugs (including medications) during pregnancy, or has certain medical conditions such as diabetes or a seizure disorder
  • a parent or unborn child has been exposed to potentially toxic agents such as drugs, chemicals, radiation, or infection 
  • a parent is infertile due to a suspected chromosome abnormality, or where the mother has premature ovarian failure
  • couples need assisted reproductive techniques to get pregnant
  • parents are blood relatives
People of certain ethnic groups and in certain geographic areas are also at greater risk for genetic disorders.

If you unsure about whether to have genetic counseling, a genetic counselor in the Clinical Genetics Program can discuss your situation with you and help you decide whether genetic counseling or another type of evaluation would be helpful.