The field of DNA technology has many applications in everyday life. It involves the research and manipulation of genetic matter, and scientists are using the technology for a wide range of purposes and products. In medicine, the technology helps in diagnosing genetic illnesses like sickle-cell and Huntington’s disease. Such ailments are passed on genetically from one generation to another. So, those who are susceptible to them can be identified and treated early. Additionally, the technology is also vital in the development of vaccines. Scientists use it in various ways to make vaccines, including altering the genes of the pathogens and mimicking their surface proteins.
Which career combines DNA technology and medicine? Medical Genetics is one of the careers that combine DNA technology and medicine. It’s a medical branch that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of hereditary disorders. Some of the conditions that medical genetics covers include birth defects, autism, cancer, skeletal dysplasia and parental diagnosis.
Professionals working in medical genetics are called medical geneticists and they study genetic information to help improve and maintain human health. A significant amount of education is required to join this medical field. Furthermore, medical genetics offers several specialization areas including genetic counseling, biochemical genetics, clinical molecular genetics and clinical laboratory genetics. Here, I take an in-depth look at medical genetics, and the average salary of medical geneticists. I’ll also discuss the pros and cons of the profession.
Is Medical Genetics a Good Career?
Medical or clinical geneticists concentrate on hereditary conditions. They diagnose and treat illnesses that arise from defective genes. Many times, geneticists help patients and their loved ones in understanding and coping with existing genetic disorders.
A medical geneticist can choose to specialize in particular patients such as children, adults, neurological conditions, fetal testing, etc. Every sub-specialty applies the knowledge of genes and diseases in patient diagnosis. A medical geneticist might carry out some of the tasks below:
- Offer a diagnostic workup of rare and hereditary disorders
- Provide a genetics assessment of inherited cancer symptoms
- Implement the latest testing methods
- Educate patients and their families about genetic diseases
To join the field of medical genetics, a person must undergo proper formal training. The minimum educational requirements are to obtain a doctoral degree and acquire specialized training in a subspecialty and field of choice.
Clinical medical geneticists dealing with patients usually spend time performing patient care in various settings. They might work in offices where patients visit for routine care or do rounds in the hospital for acute cases. The geneticists might also divide their workday between patients and lab work in order to fully understand certain abnormalities or diseases.
Generally, a medical geneticist works for at least 40 hours per week. And a small part of that time is spent on administrative work and paperwork. Based on one’s specialty, a doctor might work in their own private practice or alongside a group of medical professionals.
The most interesting aspect of the occupation for some doctors is the research and discoveries occurring around genetics.
Some of the main job titles under medical genetics are:
- Clinical Geneticists: They are physicians who become board certified by finishing a medical genetics residency. At times, trainees choose to combine their residency with training in pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology or internal medical care.
- Clinical Laboratory Geneticists: A clinical laboratory geneticist can hold a MD, DO, or PhD degree. They oversee and work in labs that conduct diagnostic genetic testing. That might be in the fields of biochemical genetics, molecular genetics or cytogenetics. Additionally, they might be evaluating for hereditary or acquired genetic disorders. Clinical laboratory geneticists create and implement new tests. They also offer continuous assurance on the quality of tests, interpret results and communicate the results to healthcare personnel. Training includes an extra 2-year fellowship after the completion of a medical genetics residency or PhD degree. Also, trainees attend an additional year for every extra lab specialty.
- Genetic Counselors: They integrate the scientific principles of medical genetics with counseling. Genetic counselors help people to cope with diagnoses, manage risks, and make decisions on testing. They operate in a variety of settings including clinical, research and public health. Genetic counselors possess Master’s degrees in genetic counseling.
Average Medical Genetics Salary
While medical genetics isn’t the highest paying medical profession out there, it’s a worthwhile occupation for an expat looking into healthcare. Experience is a huge factor affecting wages, with seasoned medical geneticists usually earning more. The employer, location, extra skills, and board certification can also affect the pay.
The average annual salary for a medical geneticist in the US is $65,014 (as of September 2019). The majority of wages in this profession range between $31,000 and $89,500.
For specialized roles, clinical geneticists earn a yearly salary of $90,626. Clinical molecular geneticists make about $141,787 per year while genetic counselors earn $80,370 annually.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Medical Geneticist?
Medical genetics may be a very rewarding career for those who love math and science. Physicians get to learn something new each day. Additionally, figuring things out brings a feeling of satisfaction. Geneticists also get to know patients and families often in challenging times, which is a very rewarding aspect of the profession. So, if you are an expat, this can be quite a fascinating path to take.
Unfortunately, the field of medical genetics is faced with several challenges. For one, medical geneticists often have to give bad news to patients and their families. It’s especially hard when one has diagnosed a progressive condition, which might present itself prenatally, during childhood or in adulthood. However, with experience geneticists get better at doing so, but it’s always difficult, and care and compassion need to be maintained.
Another setback is the fact that not all genetics concepts are known. Sometimes a physician might find himself or herself unaware of a certain diagnosis.
Thirdly, it is relatively overwhelming for one to keep up to date with all the medical genetics literature. It’s a rapidly changing field, so it’s difficult to know everything.
Is Medical Genetics For Me?
Genetic diseases know no boundaries. They attack the young and the old, males and females, and all nationalities. Medical genetics focuses on how hereditary and genetic variables play a part in causing diseases, birth defects, and susceptibility to illnesses. The 1990 Human Genome Project started to map the location of genes on the chromosomes. Nowadays, with the knowledge derived from the Project, researchers are discovering how genetic illnesses arise, and how to treat and prevent them.
Anyone looking to join medical genetics should possess certain qualities to succeed, including:
- Good typing skills because genetics notes are lengthy
- Have the willingness to complete a rigorous medical course
- Be willing to ask for help and advice from others, since one cannot know everything
- Have an aptitude for science
- Be ready for constant change
- Be prepared to cry
- Have the enthusiasm to learn
- Good communication skills
- Be able to work as part of a team
- Good time management skills
- Excellent problem-solving skills
Clinical (medical) geneticists meet with patients to evaluate symptoms and make a diagnosis. They work together with other members of a healthcare team to develop and implement treatment plans. Their work is usually split between a clinical setting (where they meet with patients) and a laboratory (where genetic analysis occurs).
In addition to being expertly trained professionals, medical geneticists are also required to deliver compassionate patient care. Other than the medical risks, genetic testing might be accompanied by financial, social and emotional risks. Physicians must guide their patients not only in the testing process, but also in dealing with test results.
Clinical geneticists collect genetic material for evaluation via blood and cheek swabs tests. Both tests are painless and usually risk-free. However, amniocentesis, which examines the amniotic fluid of pregnant women, brings with it a slight risk of miscarriage.
Doctors use a variety of tests to perform diagnoses and create appropriate treatment plans such as:
- Carrier testing: People with a family or ethnic history of genetic disorders may decide to undergo genetic testing before choosing to bear kids
- Presymptomatic and predictive testing: It shows whether one is at risk of developing a hereditary disease or abnormality. If one knows they are at risk, they may be able to receive a diagnosis and treatment sooner
- Diagnostic testing: For those who are experiencing symptoms of an illness arising from genetic alterations, testing may allow for a definitive diagnosis
- Screening of newborns: In the US, newborns must be tested for specific genetics and metabolic disorders. Early testing facilitates immediate provision of care and treatment
- Pharmacogenetics: It can help to determine the most effective medications and doses for treating particular diseases and abnormalities
- Preimplantation testing: During vitro fertilization (IVF), the embryo is genetically tested first to check for any disorders
- Prenatal testing: It helps to detect the existence of specific abnormalities in a growing fetus
The journey to becoming a medical geneticist is long and rigorous. However, after acquiring the necessary education and experience, one can enjoy a rewarding occupation.
The job growth for healthcare providers is projected to be 13% through 2026, which is quicker than average in comparison to other professions. Scientific discovery is developing rapidly. That means medical geneticists have a higher capability for diagnosis, management and prevention of genetic diseases. The demand for specialists is robust and is expected to continue.
About the author: Marta Kovachek is the author of this article. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Economics. Marta enjoys writing about the current economic situation and loves helping our readers to find their next "destination". From places to live to complex social and economic topics, we always enjoy Marta's work. Please contact us in case of any questions.