1. Lewis, Judith A. PhD, RN, FAAN

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Did you know that genetics has existed as a nursing specialty for many years and even has its own specialty organization, the International Society of Nurses in Genetics (ISONG)? Nurses providing genetic healthcare make valuable contributions to patients and their families. They are also committed to help all nurses increase their genetic literacy and competence in order to provide quality evidence-based care in this new century.


April 14, 2003 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Watson and Crick's (1953) landmark paper describing the structure of DNA. On that day, Francis Collins, the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, announced the completion of the sequencing of the human genome. The event was celebrated by those of us in attendance, and the story was reported on the evening news, but the magnitude of that announcement will be fully realized only in the future. Indeed, few such watershed events have occurred in the history of healthcare; the discoveries of anesthesia, immunizations, and antibiotics are such landmarks. The birth of the genomic era of healthcare in 2003 holds similar promise to revolutionize healthcare.


Now it is up to all of us as healthcare professionals to catch up with the genetic revolution. For instance, do you know the difference between genetics and genomics? The main difference is that genetics, or the science of heredity, is the study of the effects of a single gene, and genomics is the study of the genes and their functions and their interactions with each other and the environment. It involves studying all of the genetic material contained in a cell, including the DNA contained in the chromosomes of the nucleus as well as the mitochondrial DNA.


There are over 2.7 million nurses in the United States; of those, approximately 2.2 million are currently practicing as RNs. Most work in inpatient hospital settings, providing direct patient care. They are the healthcare professionals who spend the largest amount of time with the patient. Nurses are often the healthcare professionals who first note dysmorphic features in a newborn, who provide patient education about a newly diagnosed chronic condition, or who answer patients' questions regarding the meaning of their illnesses. Nurses deal with the entire spectrum of the human response to health and illness. The nursing workforce, therefore, becomes responsible for explaining the role of genetics to patients and for caring for people's genetic health.


Nursing of the future will not require that every nurse be a specialist in genetics, but every nurse will need to have a working knowledge of genetics and genomics.


Comprehensive nursing care of the future will not require that every nurse be a specialist in genetics, but instead that every nurse has a working knowledge of genetics and genomics. Nurses will need to have the knowledge and skills to provide appropriate care for the vast majority of persons who have conditions with genetic/genomic components, and each nurse will need to know when to practice collaboratively and when to refer patients to specialist nurses in genetics.


The goal of this special issue of MCN on genetics is to provide maternal-child health nurses with some of the genetics knowledge they need to practice in the 21st century. Each article is written by an ISONG member who has special expertise in the area. We hope this issue whets your genomic appetite. We in ISONG look forward to providing you with information on the nursing workforce in genetics, the way nurses in genetics practice in the United States and throughout the world, and also about the resources required to ensure that our over 2 million nurse colleagues have the knowledge and skills they need to practice effectively.




Watson, J. D., & Crick, F. H. C. (1953). Molecular structure of nucleic acids: A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature, 171, 737. [Context Link]