Genetics nursing is the care and education of people affected with or at risk from diseases and disorders with genetic or hereditary components, including, but not limited to birth defects, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Genetics nursing is related to genetics counseling, and a genetics nurse will usually work closely with a genetics counselor. Nurses who work in genetics might be referred to as genetic clinical nurses (GNC) or advanced practice nurses in genetics (APNG), depending on level of education and experience.
Genomic medicine as a means for improving healthcare outcomes took off in the wake of the Human Genome Project, a study of human DNA that in April of 2003 provided a genetic blueprint, or DNA map, for the human body. Researchers have high hopes that genomic medicine could one day shed meaningful light on the nature and causes of birth defects, cancer, heart disease and other genetic conditions.
As the average age of the population in the United States continues to increase, genetics nurses and APNGs will be in demand to help manage illnesses and chronic diseases related to genetic traits.
What does a genetics nurse do?
The responsibilities of genetics nursing include a range of duties related to birth defects and other inherited traits and/or conditions. A genetics nurse might work closely with patients who are concerned that they are at risk for conditions that were diagnosed in their parents, grandparents or other close relatives.
Diseases and conditions with a strong genetic component include:
- Heart disease
- Most types of cancer
- Sickle cell disease
- Cystic fibrosis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Tay-Sachs disease
- And more
According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, genetic disorders are grouped in three categories, and genetics nurses must become well-versed in all three. They are:
- Monogenetic disorders – conditions caused by the mutation of a single gene; examples are sickle cell disease and polycystic kidney disease.
- Multifactorial inheritance disorders – conditions caused by a combination of inherited gene variations, often exacerbated by environmental factors; examples include heart disease and diabetes.
- Chromosome disorders – conditions caused by an excess or deficiency of genes within the chromosomes; examples include Down syndrome and trisomy.
Because many genetic disorders manifest based on environmental factors, a genetics nurse must be knowledgeable about those risk factors, as well as the makeup and intricacies of the human genome. Armed with information on the latest genomic medicine, a genetics nurse or counselor handles:
- A patient’s risk assessment for monogenetic and multifactorial disorders
- Research and analysis of genetic contributions to disease risk
- Educating and counseling patients on their combined genetic and environmental risks
- Nursing care for patients diagnosed with genetic disorders
Genetics nursing is an ideal field for healthcare professionals who are interested in how traits and conditions are passed from generation to generation. Scientific discovery is a part of everyday life in genomic medicine, which is an emerging discipline that could produce major breakthroughs in medical treatment and diagnosis.
Genetics Nursing Job Growth and Salary
Currently, there is high demand for professionals in the field of genetics nursing, specifically with regard to hospital and multidisciplinary research settings. The need for genetics nurses will continue to rise in concert with an aging populace and advances in genomic medical technology.
The National Human Genome Research Institute lists the median income for a career in genetics nursing at $62,450, with the higher-end pay range just over $90,000 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2016 that annual mean wage of genetic counselors was $74,960.
The BLS also reported that the lowest-paid 10% of genetic counselors earned an annual mean wage of $45,540, while the highest-paid 10% earned an average mean salary of $104,770.
Pay rates and job availability vary based on a number of factors, including geographic location and the status of the jobs market. Candidates should conduct their own research when seeking a job as a genetics nurse.
How to Become a Genetics Nurse
Those interested in genetics nursing must first be a registered nurse (RN). In addition to specified educational requirements, including a master’s degree and advanced credentials, candidates in genetics nursing need strong communication skills for the education and support of patients and families, as well as the observation and research skills demanded by laboratory settings.
The steps to becoming a genetics clinical nurse or an advanced practice nurse in genetics typically include:
- Becoming a licensed registered nurse
- Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
- Passing the Genetics Clinical Nursing (GCN) exam
- Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) from an accredited program
- Passing the Advanced Practice Nurse in Genetics exam
GCNs and APNGs are employed at hospitals, physicians’ offices, research facilities and outpatient care clinics.