I rarely post about genetic counseling, but to answer the basic questions, this is a clear explanation of what a genetic counselor is (ABGC, 2010):
A genetic counselor is a health care professional who is academically and clinically prepared to provide genetic counseling services to individuals and families seeking information about the occurrence, or risk of occurrence, of a genetic condition or birth defect.
The genetic counseling process involves the collection and interpretation of family, genetic, medical and psychosocial history information. Analysis of this information, together with an understanding of genetic principles and the knowledge of current technologies, provides clients and their families with information about risk, prognosis, medical management, and diagnostic and prevention options. Information is discussed in a client-centered manner while respecting the broad spectrum of beliefs and value systems that exist in our society. The genetic counseling process ultimately facilitates informed decision-making and promotes behaviors that reduce the risk of disease.
A very interesting book on genetic counseling provides a very useful insight. Below is my summary of the fourth chapter of the book, “Genetic Counselor and Ideas from Psychotherapy” (Evans, 2006):
Chapter 4: The role and skills of the counsellor and ideas from psychotherapy
(From Genetic Counselling by Christine Evans, page 61-82)
The role of the counsellor
There are different opinions on the role of counsellor. Some of these opinions are genetic counsellor as information provider or facilitator of decision-making. Another opinion stated that genetic counsellor play a role in assisting decision-making and helping to prepare clients for the result and to facilitate the client in accepting the meaning of a test result.
In practice, there change between the role of information provider and facilitator is a dynamic process. When a patient gives emotional response after information is given, then the role of the counsellor is more as a facilitator than information provider. The elements of genetic counselling are review of the family history, present and past relationships and attitudes, self-reflection, decision-making and coping. There is also a need to process emotions and contain anxiety. Skills repertoire of genetic counsellor may be expanded with additional ideas taken from general theory of psychotherapy.
Principles from psychotherapy
Winnicott (1971) and Bion (1959) emphasise the attitude and skill needed in professional relationship. There is also a need to understand the link between emotion and thinking in genetic counselling.
The structure of the interview
The interview takes place within a physical space, a time space and a psychological
The physical space
The physical space of genetic counselling may be anywhere as long as the purpose is clear and there’s an agreed agenda for both patient and genetic counsellors. The space is more of an interactional space of discussion between the counsellor and patients or also with the family. The genetic counsellor is responsible for the time, focus, and approach.
The time space
A consultation may be similar to a music piece with a beginning that then builds up in the middle and ends with a conclusion. Within a time space patients can bring what is relevant about their condition to the genetic counselling process. Ending the meeting session may be difficult for the genetic counsellors or the patient, and the counsellor has to be able to let go and allow the patient to find their own way or manage their situation with the support of friends or family or alone.
The psychological space
The professional relationship between patients and genetic counsellors is also a psychological space where there is a potential for sharing feelings, developing thinking and decision-making. During the consultation, the counsellor needs to be aware and consider of how the patient is registering the experience.
The elements of a therapeutic professional relationship
The ‘facilitating environment’ and ‘potential space’
Winnicott (1971) and Bion (1959) developed understanding of the conditions needed for building a therapeutic encounter. Winnicott’s stated that genetic counsellors must have particular qualities – an attitude of being emotionally available, supportive, aware and understanding of the patients’ vulnerability. That relationship could then facilitate emotional growth and development in professional consultation. Bion (1959) stated that in the professional relationship there needs to be an ability of the counsellor to tolerate negative emotions, to be able to internally process them and transform them into positive feelings of empathy, concern and compassion. The counsellor is not disturbed by the patient’s high anxiety, but understands the fear, is able to tolerate it and gently and compassionately conveys that sentiment. In a more contractual language the counsellor and patient have to set up a working alliance.
The working alliance
This term refers to the necessity for the counsellor and patient to work together to complete the agreed tasks.
Bordin (1982) considers that there are three components to the working alliance: a consensus between the counsellor and patient on the goals of the encounter; an agreement on the topics and number of meetings to address how the goal is achieved; and, most importantly, the development of a strong affective bond between the professional and patient.
The co-construction of purpose of an interview with the definition of roles
A natural corollary to the working alliance is the idea of the co-construction of the purpose of the interview where the counsellor and patient jointly agree on the purpose of the interview. The counsellor must allow considerable space for the patient to tell their story, but also to keep the focus of the discussion. Sometimes, it may be difficult to interrupt a patient who is telling a personally significant and painful story but with skill and experience the counsellor will be able to balance listening to the story and focusing on the genetic task.
Empathy is a ‘feeling state’ of being able to understand someone else’s subjective experience and is the essential skill in human interaction. It is the ingredient the counsellor needs to establish the secure base of relationship with patients. To achieve this special form of communication, the counsellor has to suspend personal ideas and views to be receptive, linked and attuned to the patient in order to understand the other person’s mindset.
Genetic counsellors must aid decision-making and facilitate patients to process the effects of a result. The patient then must be able to self-reflect, which means not only experiencing, but also thinking about the experience. The ability to self-reflect results in thinking aloud, reflecting, integrating and also assessing one’s present position and comparing it to one’s former self. This self-reflection gives an overview and a deeper understanding.
Communicative competence and listening skills of integrating meaning
The counsellor should identify key words used by the patient and follows the train of thought, joins with the thinking process. The counsellor must also read the non-verbal behaviour and consider the level of intelligence. For example, the counsellor revealed a more complete understanding by pausing and summarising the story of the patient.
The use of metaphor
Metaphor language can facilitate an understanding where logical thought, clarification or explanation has failed. The use of metaphor allow the patient and counsellor away from the direct problem to look at it in another way, which is not personal but capture the similar problem of the patient.
- The genetic counselling process involve creating a physical and psychological space which facilitates the patient.
- Anxiety of the patient may be contained when the genetic counsellor is empathetic and understand the patient’s experience.
- Metaphors, listening and communication skills of the counsellor may facilitate the patient better.
- Further on, the genetic counsellor must develop the patient’s ability to self-reflect, make decisions, and deal with the emotions and frustrations.
American Board of Genetic Counseling (ABGC), 2010. Genetic Counseling As A Career. [Online] American Board of Genetic Counseling. Available at http://www.abgc.net/english/View.asp?x=1484 [Accessed 26 June 2010].
Evans C., Biesecker B., 2006. Genetic Counselling, A Psychological Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
26 June 2010. Rahajeng. http://dokterblog.wordpress.com