What is genetic counselling and do I need a genetic counsellor?

Genetic counselling is a service that provides information and advice about genetic conditions. These are conditions caused by changes (known as mutations) in certain genes and are usually passed down through a family.

Genetic counselling is conducted by healthcare professionals who have been specially trained in the science of human genetics (a genetic counsellor or a clinical geneticist).

These specialists work as members of a healthcare team, providing information and support to families who have members with birth defects or genetic disorders and to families who may be at risk of a variety of inherited conditions.

Genetic counselling isn't a form of psychological counselling or psychotherapy and shouldn't be confused with counselling therapy used to treat mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Why might I need genetic counselling?

Your GP or another healthcare professional may refer you for a genetic consultation if:

  • you know there's a specific genetic disorder in your family and you'd like specialist advice about the risks to you or your children
  • there may be a genetic condition in your family that needs specialist diagnosis
  • your child has problems that may have a genetic cause and need specialist diagnosis
  • there's a history of some types of cancer in your family, such as breast cancer at a young age, and you want to know if you're at risk
  • you're pregnant and you want to discuss an abnormal test result and understand your options

Your appointment will usually take place at your nearest NHS regional genetics centre. The British Society for Genetic Medicine website has details for each of the genetics centres in the UK.

What will happen at my appointment?

This will depend on exactly why you've been referred for a genetic consultation. Below are some examples of what your appointment may include:

  • learning about a health condition that runs in your family, how it's inherited and which family members may be affected
  • an assessment of the risk of you and your partner passing an inherited condition on to your child
  • a look at the medical history of your family or your partner's family and drawing up a family tree
  • support and advice if you have a child affected by an inherited condition and you want to have another child
  • a discussion about genetic tests, which can be arranged if appropriate
  • help in understanding the results of genetic tests and what they mean
  • information about relevant patient support groups

It's important to understand that your healthcare professional will not make decisions for you or tell you what to do next. They will try to give you clear, accurate information so you can decide what's best for you.

Read the answers to more questions about NHS services and treatments.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 13/02/2014

Next review due: 12/02/2016