Journal of Genetic Counseling

, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp 903–909 | Cite as

Conceptualizing Genetic Counseling as Psychotherapy in the Era of Genomic Medicine

  • Jehannine Austin
  • Alicia Semaka
  • George Hadjipavlou
Theory Based Paper


Discussions about genetic contributions to medical illness have become increasingly commonplace. Physicians and other health-care providers in all quarters of medicine, from oncology to psychiatry, routinely field questions about the genetic basis of the medical conditions they treat. Communication about genetic testing and risk also enter into these conversations, as knowledge about genetics is increasingly expected of all medical specialists. Attendant to this evolving medical landscape is some uncertainty regarding the future of the genetic counseling profession, with the potential for both increases and decreases in demand for genetic counselors being possible outcomes. This emerging uncertainty provides the opportunity to explicitly conceptualize the potentially distinct value and contributions of the genetic counselor over and above education about genetics and risk that may be provided by other health professionals. In this paper we suggest conceptualizing genetic counseling as a highly circumscribed form of psychotherapy in which effective communication of genetic information is a central therapeutic goal. While such an approach is by no means new—in 1979 Seymour Kessler explicitly described genetic counseling as a “kind of psychotherapeutic encounter,” an “interaction with a psychotherapeutic potential”—we expand on his view, and provide research evidence in support of our position. We review available evidence from process and outcome studies showing that genetic counseling is a therapeutic encounter that cannot be reduced to one where the counselor performs a simple “conduit for information” function, without losing effectiveness. We then discuss potential barriers that may have impeded greater uptake of a psychotherapeutic model of practice, and close by discussing implications for practice.


Psychosocial Psychotherapy Therapeutic Genetic counseling Evidence based medicine 



JA was supported by the Canada Research Chairs program and BC Mental Health and Addictions Services. AS was supported by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Conflict of Interest

Authors Austin, Semaka and Hadjipavlou declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© National Society of Genetic Counselors, Inc. 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Psychiatry and Medical GeneticsUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  3. 3.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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