There are four types of medical geneticists that are certified by the American Board of Medical Genetics that contribute to our understanding of genetics and how it influences a person. These specialties are: clinical genetics, clinical biochemical genetics, clinical cytogenetics, and clinical molecular genetics. Of these, only the clinical genetics specialty works with patients. The other three are primarily lab-based positions.
For this article we will be focused on clinical genetics, those physicians who desire to work directly with patients.
What is a Medical Geneticist?
A medical, or clinical, geneticist focuses on a practice comprised of hereditary disorders. These doctors will diagnose and treat diseases that are caused by defects in the genes, specifically. In many cases, one of the most important things that a medical geneticist does is help patients and their families understand and cope with their genetic disorder.
A medical geneticist has a wide range of tools at their disposal, including specialized counseling; therapeutic interventions; cytogenetic, radiologic and biochemical testing and the ongoing scientific research that is performed and implemented as we understand more and more how genetics affect a person.
Some medical geneticists choose to specialize on a particular patient population like infants and children, adult patients, neurological disorders, fetal testing and diagnosis, etc. Each sub-specialty applies what we know about genes and diseases to the symptoms and diagnosis of the individual. A medical geneticist may perform some of the following tasks, as outlined by The Mayo Clinic Department of Medical Genetics:
Educational Requirements for Becoming a Medical Geneticist
The minimum educational requirement for becoming a medical geneticist is a doctoral degree followed by specialized training in the subspecialty and field of the physician choice.
Step-by-Step Educational Path to Becoming a medical Geneticist
The bachelor’s degree is the basis of education for all physicians. The scientific knowledge and education at this point of training is what sets the physician up for success throughout the rest of their career. It is important for all aspiring doctors to take this first level of education seriously and get as much as they can out of it.
There is no specific degree program that an aspiring doctor must complete at this level, though there are specific requirements for entering medical school that all students should be aware of and ensure they complete. Specific natural and biological science courses and psychology courses make up some of the coursework and lab credits that will be needed for medical school acceptance.
Some universities and colleges offer specialized pre-med tracks that are designed to give the student all of the credits they need to apply to medical school. These tracks allow the student to major in their field of choice while selecting the classes that will most benefit their aspirations of becoming a physician. Regardless of the degree that one pursues at this level, it is important that they choose their classes wisely and efficiently as there are still many years of training ahead of them.
The junior year of undergraduate training is usually the time that students take their Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). More about the MCAT is below. Students who take the time to get experience in clinical settings and volunteer or attend conferences and trainings can really set themselves apart from other applicants during the competitive medical school entry process.
Medical College Admissions Test
The MCAT is designed to test the prospective medical students grasp of basic scientific knowledge, problem solving and critical thinking skills. It is scored for each category and those numbers are submitted along with all other medical school admissions requirements.
Most medical schools have published their minimum and competitive MCAT scores so students know what to strive for and where they stand when submitting their materials. In addition to knowing the minimum scores, it is recommended that all students use the many available resources that exist for studying and preparing to take the test. Online and in-person tutoring and study groups, books, pre-tests and practice-tests and other materials are a valuable resource for the test that can determine entry into medical school and help the trajectory of a person’s career in medicine.
Medical School Admissions
In addition to submitting their scores from their MCAT, students will submit their cumulative GPA, letters of reference, information about extracurricular activities and leadership experience and any other information that will set them apart from other applicants. As medical school is so competitive it is wise to gather the materials and work hard to make every submission count. This can be done by gaining extra training or experience while doing undergraduate studies – some doctors recommend getting patient care experience as soon as possible by volunteering at a hospital or getting Certified Nursing Assistant training. These small steps help the physician’s confidence and focus as they move into the rest of their education.
Once accepted into medical school, the real work starts. Students will start with two years of science and laboratory training along with medical ethics and classes on the art and practice of medicine. This knowledge is tested the second year of medical school when students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam, Step 1.
After passing that exam, the student then moves into two years of directly supervised clinical experience that includes a variety of specialties and settings. Within this experience students can discover which specialties and sub-specialties most interest them and fit their skill set.
At the fourth year of medical school the student takes the United States Medical Licensing Exam, Step 2 which tests both clinical knowledge and clinical skills that should have been acquired during rotations and will be needed as the student becomes a resident doctor. If the student passes both of these exams they are considered a Resident, which means they are still in training and still under some supervision but will be able to provide care to patients during Residency and Internship which will be the next step on their medical journey.
The first two years of residency will be in a general medical field such as internal medicine, pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology. From there the student will enter into genetics residency. Clinical genetics is considered a primary specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties, rather than a sub-specialty. This means the next exam sequence will be for clinical genetics board certification after two years of experience in the field.
Experience during the clinical genetics portion of training will include diagnosis, treatment and management of general and metabolic genetic diseases; prenatal genetic testing and counseling, diagnostic and research laboratory training and more.
In some cases, the medical geneticist will chose to go on to advanced training programs that can include clinical molecular genetics or medical biochemical genetics. This further training can result in a board certification in the subspecialty that is maintained through continuing education and pre-determined programs administered by the American Board of Medical Genetics.
Understanding the Career Path
Clinical medical geneticists working with patients will spend time doing patient care in a variety of settings. They may work in an office where patients come for routine care and follow-up, spend time doing rounds in a hospital for more acute cases, or split their time between patients and laboratory work in order to understand the patients abnormality or disease more fully.
In general, a medical geneticist can expect to work at least 40 hours a week, with a small portion of that time spent on administrative duties and paperwork. Depending on their specialty, the doctor may find themselves in their own private practice or with a group of doctors of different specialties that work together to provide care.
The most interesting part of this work for some physicians may be the research and discoveries that are happening around genetics and genetic testing which will make the specialty an exciting place to be in the coming years.
The average reported salary for a medical geneticist in the United States is $158,597 annually. This is by no means the highest earning specialty for a physician to pursue, but it does provide an interesting and currently evolving field of medicine that is rewarding for the right individual.