What keeps you up at night? Genetics professionals' distressing experiences in patient care

Barbara A. Bernhardt, Rachel Silver, Cynda Hylton Rushton, Ellyn Micco, Gail Geller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


PURPOSE: To explore specific patient care experiences that genetics professionals associate with distress and the emotions engendered by those experiences. METHODS: We conducted semistructured telephone interviews with clinical geneticists, genetic counselors, and genetic nurses that focused on a single distressing experience. RESULTS: Fourteen clinical geneticists, 25 genetic counselors, and 14 nurses were interviewed. We categorized the situations that interviewees associated with distressing patient care experiences into seven major types: patient/family decisions (27% of total situations), giving bad news (17%), colleague behavior (15%), end-of-life issues (12%), unintended outcomes (12%), difficult patients (8%), and injustice/inhumanity (8%). Interviewees reported experiencing a variety of negative emotions during these situations, including anger, guilt, helplessness, and inadequacy. CONCLUSIONS: The distress and resulting emotions experienced by genetic service providers must be acknowledged. Interventions are needed to assist the clinician in becoming self-aware by reflecting on experienced emotions, examining belief systems and values, and understanding the connection between their emotions and behavior. Involvement in mindfulness meditation, reflective writing, peer support groups or additional communication skill-based training could address this need. In addition, clinicians should seek ways to increase personal meaning derived from providing patient care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)289-297
Number of pages9
JournalGenetics in Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2010


  • Burnout
  • Countertransference
  • Distress
  • Genetic service providers
  • Training

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics(clinical)


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