CLEAR News - Summer 2004

Genetic Counselors Licensure

As research in the field of genetics progresses, many difficult questions arise.  Some of these questions are extremely personal, involving decisions about undergoing testing and its impact on reproductive and family choices.  Other questions have an impact on public policy, legislation, and regulation.  One such question raising some attention in state legislatures is �Should genetic counselors be licensed?�  California and Utah are the only states with licensing laws for genetic counselors.  Licensing legislation is currently being considered in several states.

In brief, genetic counselors provide information about an individual�s predisposition for genetic conditions and genetic testing options and provide counseling and support services to clients.  They aid people in making decisions about genetic testing and help them interpret and respond to the results.  Currently, genetic counselors can apply for certification from the American Board of Genetic Counseling.  Candidates must complete educational requirements through a genetic counseling training program accredited by the ABGC.  Training programs include coursework and clinical training.  Upon successful completion of a training program, candidates are eligible to sit for the ABGC examination which consists of the General Examination and the Genetic Counseling Specialty Examination.  For full details of the certification requirements and process, please see the American Board of Genetic Counseling.

Since genetic information has the potential to dramatically affect personal reproductive and health decisions, it is extremely important that clients receive accurate and reliable information.  Supporters of genetic counselor licensing stress that licensure would provide a means of assuring that counselors are adequately trained and are accountable for meeting appropriate standards of practice.  Licensure and the corresponding licensing board would allow for required continuing education and a system for discipline of practitioners who do not uphold the standards.  Supporters claim that licensure would help protect the public from the potential psychological and emotional harm that could result from clients receiving incorrect information from inadequately trained individuals that hold themselves out to be genetic counselors.

Some opponents, however, claim that licensure would create more risk for potential harm.  In many states, genetic counselors work under the supervision of a hospital, and patients are referred to counselors by licensed medical professionals who know the counselors credentials.  Allowing counselors to work independently of that relationship would create more risk, they claim.

Opponents also fear that requiring licensure would create a shortage of genetic counselors as entry into the profession is restricted.  This could also result in demand for salary increases for licensed genetic counselors, thus making it more difficult for budget-restricted hospitals and medical facilities to employ them.  Since licensure would allow genetic counseling services to be eligible for insurance reimbursement, opponents also point out the possible increase in insurance premiums as a negative impact.

As the field of genetics progresses, efforts are underway to provide more extensive training in genetic issues to doctors, nurses, social workers, and other medical professionals.  Some argue that licensure laws for genetic counselors would create an overlap with the scope of practice of other medical professionals.  Others argue that as more genetic tests and information become available, there will be a greater demand for genetic counselors who have received specific and formal training in the field.

The new possibilities provided by research in the field of genetics bring up a lot of questions as well, with no easy answers.  As the debate continues, healthcare professionals, regulators, and policy makers will attempt to answer the question Should genetic counselors be licensed?

Related Web Sites
National Society of Genetic Counselors
American Board of Genetic Counseling (offers links to accredited training programs)
American Board of Medical Genetics
Canadian Association of Genetic Counselors
Coalition of State Genetics Coordinators
American Society of Human Genetics
Genetics Society of America
American College of Medical Genetics