There may not be enough genetic counselors to keep up with 23andMe: 5 things to know

Jessica Kim Cohen - Print  | 

As direct-to-consumer genetic testing services continue to gain traction, the U.S. is beginning to see a "national shortage" of genetic counselors, according to The Atlantic.

Here are five things to know about the role genetic counselors play in the genetic testing market.

1. Physicians traditionally refer patients to see a genetic counselor in advance of a genetic test to establish expectations for the assessment. The patient would then return to the genetic counselor after receiving their test results to contextualize the information, as genetic disease risk doesn't take into account family history or environmental influences, and discuss next steps.

2. The rise of direct-to-consumer genetic tests has allowed many consumers to interpret their own results. In a recent STAT op-ed, 23andMe CEO and co-founder Anne Wojcicki argued patients don't need expert input to interpret direct-to-consumer genetic test results, and noted the company's genetic health risk reports boasted a user comprehension rate of at least 90 percent.

3. However, many experts disagree. Kelly Ormond, a genetics professor at Stanford (Calif.) University's Center for Biomedical Ethics, told The Atlantic consumers may not understand the limitations of their results. For example, 23andMe's tests that aim to determine mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are linked to breast cancer, only test for three mutations.

"If you have a family history and don't know there are other tests that more fully look at those genes and other breast-cancer genes, you might falsely think, 'I'm off the hook' if your result comes back negative," she explained.

4. Today, there are 4,600 genetic counselors in the U.S. — 95 percent more than there were a decade ago, according to data from the American Board of Genetic Counseling and cited by The Atlantic. However, even with this rapid increase, there are still an estimated two to three genetic counselor jobs available for every genetic counselor training program graduate.

"It's a very underserved profession. There are so many jobs available and not enough qualified, trained counselors," Stephanie Gandomi, the assistant program director for the genetic counseling program at Boise State University in Idaho, told The Atlantic.

5. With increasing interest in genetic counseling services, the U.S. Bureau of Labor projects the demand for these positions to grow almost 30 percent between 2016 and 2026.

To access The Atlantic's article, click here.

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