Differences in genetic counseling student responses to intense patient affect: A study of students in North American programs

Rachel Keppers, Patricia McCarthy Veach, Lynn Schema, Bonnie S LeRoy, Ian M. MacFarlane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Research indicates genetic counseling patients often experience intense emotions. No studies, however, have investigated how genetic counseling students respond to patient affect. This survey study investigated student responses to patient emotions and select factors affecting their responses. One-hundred fifty-one genetic counseling students in North American programs wrote a response to each of three hypothetical prenatal scenarios, identical except for the patient affect expressed (anger, fear, or sadness). They also completed measures of empathy tendency and tolerance of negative affect and demographic questions. Multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA), used to analyze the effects of major study variables on the types of responses given by participants, was significant. Follow-up univariate ANCOVAs indicated small to moderate effect sizes for student clinical experience, race/ethnicity, and relationship status within and across scenarios. For example, as number of patients counseled increased, participants used more feeling reflections and fewer self-involving statements. There were no significant differences in responses due to empathy tendency or affect tolerance. Most common responses were information provision and feeling reflections for the Anger scenario, information provision for the Fear scenario, and influencing responses for the Sadness scenario. Responses to each scenario typically involved multiple thoughts (range: 1–14; means ranged from 3.25 in the Sadness scenario to 3.62 in the Fear scenario). Most students (82%) reported the Anger scenario was the most difficult. Thematic analysis of reasons a scenario was difficult yielded four themes: Discomfort with situation/emotion, Positive countertransference, Uncertain how to respond, and Negative countertransference. Findings that clinical experience affects how participants responded to patient affect support the essential role of applied experience. Findings also support training and supervision to help genetic counseling students in North America learn ways to respond to strong patient emotions and recognize and manage countertransference.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)398-410
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Genetic Counseling
Issue number2
Early online dateSep 12 2021
StatePublished - Sep 12 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 National Society of Genetic Counselors


  • anger
  • fear
  • genetic counseling
  • professional development
  • psychosocial
  • sadness


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