Just What Are We Trying To Do Here? The Goals of Genetic Counseling

In a previous post, I discussed my disappointment with the state of genetic counseling research. Barb Biesecker rightly pointed out that part of the problem lies in a lack of consensus and clarity about the goals of genetic counseling.


So let’s consider some goals of genetic counseling. I make a distinction between Ultimate Goals (i.e., what we ultimately hope genetic counseling will achieve) and Short Term and Intermediate Goals (i.e., key steps towards achieving Ultimate Goals). In my view, the Ultimate Goals of Genetic Counseling are:

1) To reduce the medical, emotional, social, and psychological suffering that results from the genetic contribution to disease.

2) To ensure the cost-effective and equitable delivery of competent genetic counseling services to all people in a manner that respects their dignity, individuality, and values.

Genetic counselors may utilize many different techniques and ethical frameworks – which will vary with the needs and unique situation of each patient as well as the skills and training of the health care provider- to achieve these ends.

These goals offer a framework for evaluating process and outcome studies of genetic counseling. In a very basic example, a method for increasing awareness of preconception folic acid supplementation might produce a better informed patient (a short term goal) which might help achieve the intermediate goal of better adherence to dietary supplementation which would then lead to the ultimate goal of a reduced incidence of anencephaly. An intervention that simply increases education but does not result in greater adherence or a better health outcome is only a very limited success. Another example of how these goals might be used to assess genetic counseling effectiveness could be a particular patient-centered emotionally sensitive genetic counseling technique that resulted in better psychological adaptation to a child with a genetic condition, which in turn resulted in less emotional and psychological familial turmoil and perhaps better health for the child because the well-adapted family is more likely to utilize health care resources.

Although I am reluctant to bring up eugenics because it is an emotionally-charged word that generates argument rather than discussion, as genetic counselors we cannot ignore this elephant in our offices. But if we do not raise it in the context of goals, our critics will. Indeed, one could argue that eugenics would also embrace these same goals. The difference, in my view, lies in means, emphasis, and intent. Eugenics, broadly speaking, is looking to improve the “health” of the gene pool and to reduce the number of individuals with genetic diseases, usually through social or institutional influences on reproduction. Genetic counseling, on the other hand, should strive to reduce the effects of the disease, not the number of people with a particular allele or condition.

But let us not get mired down in endless discussion of the E word. Instead, ponder, explore, question, and critique my proposed goals. Tell me what you think.

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