What’s the Difference Between a Clinical Geneticist and a Genetic Counselor?
Genetic Counselors and Clinical Geneticists work hand in hand, but they are different professions.
Clinical Geneticists are medical doctors (MDs) who have specialized training in Genetics. That means that they did an additional fellowship in Genetics after completing their residency. They also have to pass a board exam given by the ABMGG. Their initial training is usually focused on another area of practice, like pediatrics, OB, or internal medicine. That may affect what types of genetics patients they choose or prefer to see.
Genetic counselors have a Masters degree that focuses on genetics and counseling skills. We have to pass a board exam given by the ABGC. Because we’re not doctors, we can’t do procedures or physical exams or diagnose diseases. GCs who see patients usually work with an MD (though some do work independently). A lot of GCs (myself included) chose this profession because they wanted to be involved in healthcare, but knew that being a doctor was not for them.
Roles in the Clinic
The GC’s role in clinic and interaction with MD Geneticists can vary a bit depending on the type of practice setting. For example, GCs in cancer clinics tend to work a bit more independently from their MD counterparts than those in a pediatric clinic. A GC may be able to evaluate and counsel patients about their genetic risks without having to call in an MD, but consult about a condition that requires a physical exam to diagnose might need an MD to be more involved.
In a pediatric setting, the GC and MD typically see the patient together. The GC usually takes a detailed medical history of the patient and their family (including drawing a family tree called a pedigree). The MD does a physical exam and may make a diagnosis or offer genetic tests. Then, they spend time with the family to make sure that they understand the implications of the diagnosis, or explain the testing options so they can make an informed choice about testing. When results are back, the GC makes sure the family understands the results and how to move forward.
Genetic information can get really complicated and can affect the entire family. GCs are often the ones that spend extended time with the family to explain those details, help them make informed decisions, and coordinate testing. MDs and GCs work together to best support their patients.