This commentary is contributed as part of the guest blogger series Diverse GC Roles.
By Vickie Venne, MS
Vickie Venne, MS, is a licensed genetic counselor with Genomic Medicine Services of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining the Genomic Medicine Service, she was Research Associate at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Ms. Venne is also actively involved in the National Society of Genetic Counselors, participating on many committees, task forces, and the editorial board of the Journal of Genetic Counseling, in addition to serving as President in 1995/6. In addition to numerous manuscripts and chapters, she has co-authored a book about genetics for the general public: The Genome Book: a Must-Have Guide to your DNA for Maximum Health.
Last month, after over 30 years as a genetic counselor, I accepted the challenge to develop and implement a new and exciting program with the Department of Veteran Affairs. I plan on it being my final career move and see it as the culmination of the variety of positions I have held over the years.
For the last 15 years, I have been at Huntsman Cancer Institute in a position that relied generally on grant funding. The largest research project was the Breast Cancer Family Registry, which allowed me to counsel and annually follow several generations of high risk families. It was an amazing privilege in a world when genetic counselors often don’t have the opportunity to provide long-term follow-up.
But by 2010, grant funding and the research focus was changing. I wanted to stay in Salt Lake, but there aren’t many positions available for someone with my experience. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1978 and my career has been varied, and unique in that I have created every one of my five previous positions. Some were traditional, such as pediatric and prenatal clinics, when in the 1980s, those services were still being developed. In 1988, I became one of the first genetic counselors to work in a commercial molecular laboratory. So I considered using this experience to develop a role in other adult onset clinics, such as diabetes or ophthalmology.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, in 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs was developing a Genomic Medicine Program with the expectation of having both a research and a clinical arm. Larry Meyer, MD, PhD, was named Director of the Genomic Medicine Service, the clinical arm. From a home base in Salt Lake City, a staff of 6 to 15 genetic counselors would provide education and consultations to both providers and patients throughout the country. How perfect.
I applied. Last month, I became the first licensed genetic counselor hired by the VA specifically to provide clinical services. There are other genetic counselors in the VA, but are part of research protocols or are contracted. This month, we hired our second genetic counselor, with plans to add more.
Locally, we will provide traditional face-to-face counseling. For the 153 other VA hospitals around the country: welcome to telehealth. The VA is adding telehealth infrastructure into every single VA hospital and community facility across the country. This will allow our staff to offer high quality genetic counseling and testing via real-time video conferencing and phone consultations to our nation’s Veterans.
Not that some aren’t already receiving care, but it is sporadic. The Genomic Medicine Service will allow for a consistent, nationally-available service that coordinates with local primary care providers. I suspect we will have the chance to work with genetic counselors outside of the VA system who provide services to individual Veterans.
What do my new days look like? Thankfully, I know genetics, because the rest is new!
- learning a new electronic medical record system and creating templates for requesting consults/chart notes/letters/follow-up
- considering which data to enter into what type of database
- preparing for ongoing performance evaluations
- creating genetic content sheets for the clinicians as well as the patients.
As for the ‘genre’ of our clinic… There will be two different ways in which we will provide service. First, we will respond to individual consults, which I suspect will span the adult condition spectrum, from diabetes to cancer to ophthalmology, and as the number of female Veterans grows, include prenatal diagnosis. There are already experts in these specialty areas available to the VA. Our job is to find those experts and develop national collaborations so Veterans across the country can obtain a consistent, high quality genetic service.
Secondly, we will also actively introduce genetic services that are ready for prime time, starting with Lynch screening. In the coming year, we will implement a protocol such that every Veteran with colorectal cancer will have the tumor processed for screening that may ultimately identify between 100 and 200 individuals annually with Lynch syndrome.
I took this position because of the professional opportunity, and it seemed the culmination of my experiences. And, I get to stay in Salt Lake. I can maintain my current friendships and add new colleagues to my life. I was initially nervous about leaving the comfort of a position I had been in for 15 years, but in this past month, have found that I absolutely love the challenge of learning something brand new. It has also been fun to reconnect with colleagues who I have met over the years and will work with in a new capacity. I would encourage all genetic counselors – both senior and new to the field – to explore ways in which their variety of skills can be used to augment or develop new programs.