Tag Archives: genetic counselling

Genetic Counseling ≠ Genetic Testing

I know that I am old and curmudgeonly. I acknowledge that my musical tastes and my concept of genetic counseling are hopelessly stuck in the 20th century. I sense in a frighteningly helpless way that my generation of genetic counselors is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the profession. It is like watching the air slowly leak out of my inflatable raft in the middle of a swift flowing river and realizing I don’t have a lifejacket. If you press me on it and buy me a few drinks, I will let slip out an admission that DNA analysis technologies like ion semiconductor sequencing and pyrosequencing are incomprehensible magic to me. I feel like I have become a visitor in my home country and I can barely speak the native tongue anymore.

So this paradox might sound like a useless warning flare fired from a sinking vessel before it goes under, a futile attempt to alert my younger upstream genetic counseling colleagues who are new to navigating these tricky waters: I love genetic testing; I hate genetic testing.

Genetic counselors and genetic testing have grown hand in hand since the early 1970s. At least in the US, one would not have flourished without the other. Amniocentesis, CVS, carrier screening, maternal serum screening, ultrasound, DNA sequencing, microarrays, and other genetic testing advances have all been ushered into medical practice by the genetic counseling profession. The tests generated a need for our unique skill sets along with the security of employment and the financial wherewithal to support our positions. Without genetic testing, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So what’s to complain about, even for a complainer like me?

Well, I have two related complaints. My first complaint is the ever-expanding list of genetic tests that we feel obliged to offer our patients in prenatal, oncology, and other settings. Don’t get me wrong – I think genetic testing can be incredibly valuable from both a medical and a psychological perspective. But I wind up spending way too much valuable counseling time highlighting the differences between Panel A and Panel B and the relative merits of this lab versus that lab. And, oh, by the way, many of the genes included on these panels are largely irrelevant to your particular clinical concerns. I hear similar plaints from some of my colleagues in prenatal – this carrier test for 75 conditions or that one for 200 conditions, or this prenatal screen versus that prenatal screen.

It is often not clear to me why some of these tests are part of clinical practice to begin with. Probably a variety of forces are behind it – the push from labs to offer more tests and to compete with other labs; the common trait of genetic counselors to be early adopters of new technologies; trying to show that we are at the cutting edge of genetics; our obsession with offering ALL options to ALL comers; demands from patients and referring physicians; worry that if we don’t offer the shiniest, newest products our patient population will go shopping at the next medical center down the road, or Heaven forbid, shop online; and a nagging fear of being sued or at the very least of providing sub-standard care. As I have written about previously, sometimes genetic tests became standard of care before they were thoroughly vetted, evaluated, and debated.

Which leads me to my second complaint. There is a tendency, sometimes overtly and sometimes silently, to conflate genetic testing and genetic counseling. Yeah, sure, genetic testing is an important part of what many of us do, but my job title says counselor, not tester. For some genetic counselors, testing is not even part of their job. We educate, provide clinical expertise to other care providers, and participate in research. There are other services we provide to our patients, not the least of which should be an intense psychological, personal, and occasionally angst-filled exploration of why patients might even want testing to begin with, never mind which test they want. We are there to support and work with them when no testing was done, when testing is irrelevant, or when testing was done in the past and we are helping them adapt to their new medical and emotional status. Let’s look at what your worries and fears are, and why you are in my office to begin with. What has it meant for your life that you or your child or your sister have this condition? What resources do you need? How have your loved ones been supportive or not of you? What are your health care and life goals? Or bigger picture questions such as what are the medical, economic, and social impacts of genetic disease?

At times I think that genetic counseling for psychiatric conditions is the last pure form of genetic counseling – reliable genetic testing is not available for most psychiatric conditions, so you are “forced” to rely on your counseling and clinical skills. Okay, so perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but you catch my drift. I remember my long time colleague Vickie Venne once saying to me that cancer genetic counseling became a lot less interesting to her once BRCA testing became available. While not denying the many benefits of BRCA testing and how it has helped save lives, there is a measure of wisdom in Vickie’s statement.

As a profession, we should extol and support our role in ordering and interpreting genetic testing. But we, or at least I, don’t want testing to be our defining activity. Yes, as one of our skill sets, we are pretty damn good at it. But let’s not forget that it is a counseling session, not an Informed Consent session or a sales pitch. We should boast more about our abilities to help patients make sense of genetic disease for their lives in a psychologically meaningful way, and testing is only one means of achieving this goal. Genetic counselors are not Genetic Testers; Genetic Counseling is not Genetic Testing.

 

 

 

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Euphemisms, Chucklers, Pet Peeves, And Wincers: Thoughts On Our Professional Vocabulary

Words are the clothes thoughts wear.

– Samuel Beckett

I struggle with words. I struggle when I counsel patients to find just the right words to explain genetic complexity while also trying to engage them in a counseling relationship. I sometimes catch myself silently groaning at the stream of what sounds like the absolutely wrong choice of words pouring out of my mouth. I wind up feeling like the voice of the parents in those Charlie Brown cartoon specials; just Wah-Wah-Wah, nonsense utterances that have no meaning or relevance to the central characters. I struggle to understand the psychological meaning of the words patients use to express their thoughts, fears, anxieties, understandings, and misunderstandings. I agonize over these blog postings, repeatedly re-working them until they have the right tone and tenor but still I always feel slightly dissatisfied with some detail of the never-quite-finished product. A close friend says that for him the wrong word is like a flat note in a musical composition. One jarring note and it takes a while for your ear to re-adjust.

So yes, I confess that I am overly obsessed with words. It is yet one more of those Devil-and-Angel aspects of my personality. Good and bad must co-exist else neither exists at all. That obsession is the impetus for this blog posting – exploring the deeper meanings, ramifications, and implications of the vocabulary of genetics, medicine, and reproduction.

I start with words that make me wince. I have previously written about products of conception, habitual aborter, and mutant. Let me add incompetent cervix and birth defect to that list. Even though these words are not used with dark intent, they say a lot about underlying unconscious attitudes and biases. Incompetent cervix is clearly a term created by men for women. Would a man who has difficulty attaining or maintaining an erection ever be said to have an incompetent penis? Birth defect is no better, though in all honesty I catch myself using it from time to time. Just another malfunctioning piece of machinery, a mistake, a reject, an inferior product of conception. And don’t get me started on crack babies. These are all judgmental and harmful words, weaponized to induce blame, shame, and guilt.

In some contexts, benign words can be manipulative, such as high risk. Every patient has a unique and flexible definition of high. But when professionals say high risk it can create a disproportional sense of worry and anxiety. For example, it is often said women 35 and older are at high risk of having a baby with Down syndrome. You can try to soften that by saying higher but the patient mostly hears the high part of that word. In fact, though, the chance that a 38-year-old woman will not have a baby with an aneuploidy is 99%. Those are pretty good odds in my book. But the presumably unconscious and unstated attitude of health care providers is that aneuploidy is an unacceptable outcome – a risk, not a probability – when they show a woman a graph or table displaying age related odds without an objective reference point to put the numbers in context. That is a lot scarier than reframing it as barely 1%, as well as sounding like an unstated scolding – “Well, if you hadn’t waited so long to have a baby, you wouldn’t have this problem.”

Some words are euphemisms. Family balancing – using reproductive technologies to choose the sex of a baby for non-medical reasons – comes to mind. It is fine and normal to want a baby of a particular gender. There are also different cultural imperatives and norms, and complicated psychological reasons why a particular gender is strongly desired.Calling it balancing glosses over the darker implications of reinforcing, and profiting from, sexism. And it implies that a family of all girls, all boys, or varying gender mixes might be out of balance.

Family balancing is a cousin to gender swaying. At first I honestly thought it referred to someone like David Bowie who seemed to fluidly float along the gender spectrum. As I have come to learn, gender swaying describes the practice of trying to increase the odds of having a baby of a particular gender by using folk methods and pseudoscientific techniques, like ovulation timing, cervical PH, and, my personal favorite, positive and negative ions in the air that can be affected by artificial lighting (just why would artificial lighting be found, uh, “down there”?). Somehow it seems more ethically innocuous than family balancing, maybe because the success rate is usually not statistically significantly greater than 50%. But family balancing and gender swaying are on the same moral spectrum. Another euphemistic term is fetal reduction, which neutrally smooths over the rougher ethical edges when a medical procedure transforms a quadruplet pregnancy into a twin pregnancy.

In genetic counseling, we try to reciprocally engage our patients to make the experience more counseling than lecturing. But there is still an underlying power dynamic that can sneak between the cracks and that can remind the patient who is in charge. An example is when we say that we take a family history. Although it is not how we intend to use the word, taking implies that I have the power to assume ownership of story that belongs to the patient, a story that is deeply personal. And by taking it, I now own this intimate knowledge and transform it into something that I reframe into a medical context that gives me power by “interpreting” it for the patient. The message can be “I know what you think about your family history, but let me tell you what it really means.” Perhaps too this power differential  underlies some of the unease many genetic counselors have about Direct To Consumer genetic testing – it diminishes our gatekeeper role of controlling access to genetic testing.

Along those lines, think of the power relationship implied by medical consultation notes that state that the patient denies a family history of genetic disease or drug use or certain symptoms. Denies? Like they are suspected of lying or a criminal activity, and I am the Grand Inquisitor trying to drag the truth out of them? Were these patients ever expecting the Spanish Inquisition?

Not all of my vocabulary pondering is dark. Some reflect my personal pet peeves on usage. I am not a Language Fascist who tries to enforce arbitrary grammatical rules because, dammit, that’s the right way. On the contrary, I love language for its variety, constant evolution, playfulness, and wonderfully creative adaptability. But a few words rub me the wrong way. Pre-existing condition is an ear-sore for me. How can something be pre- to existing? Either something exists or it doesn’t. They are existing conditions. Of course, this mild upset is nothing compared to the outrage I feel at the pig-headed, uninformed, downright nasty views about pre-existing conditions expressed by the President of the United States and his lackey Director of the Office of Management and Budget, they who are too shameful to be named. Now there’s a pair of bad hombres you’d love to rope with Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. Another “earitation” is when someone writes “The patient was told to return in 3 weeks time.” In that sentence, the word time belongs in the Department of Redundancy Department; the same information is communicated if the word is omitted. For my internal ear, it is a jarring note.

Another, perhaps more justifiable, pet peeve is when an author or speaker says something along the lines of “there was a 500% reduction in disease occurrence following this intervention” or “a five fold reduction in occurrence.” Sorry, just flat out impossible. Nothing can be reduced by more than 100% or 1 fold. After that, it ceases to exist (unless of course it were pre-existing) or it becomes an imaginary number*. If the number of cases of a disease decreases from 500 patients to 100 patients, that is an 80% reduction. Or there are one fifth of the number of cases that occurred prior to the intervention. And I don’t believe I am being a kvetcher here. Accuracy in statistical analysis and interpretation is at the very core of the scientific process and discourse, so it is critical to use the right words to describe research results.

There are some words that make me smile when I hear them, such as Captain Underpants’ arch-nemesis Professor Pippy Pee-Pee Poopypants or HMS Boaty McBoatface (okay, they have nothing to do with genetic counseling but even if your inner mind is not permanently mired like mine in the 8 year old boy phase, these names make you chuckle). Similarly, I smile when I hear surgeons describe large breasts as generous. How nice that someone has generous breasts! It almost sounds like a description of a wet nurse. A long time favorite is Instant Baby Formula, which I first encountered 45 years ago when I was a stock clerk at a Brooklyn grocery store. Just add water, and Voila! You have a baby. What could be simpler? None of the icky bother of 9 months of pregnancy or the agonies of labor.

I would love to hear from the Good Readers of The DNA Exchange about their thoughts on the vocabulary of genetics and medicine. What in our professional lexicon makes you irritated, raises your moral hackles, induces euphemistic groans, or you just enjoy? Given the widespread employment of genetic  counselors in laboratories, is there some new Lab Vocab starting to emerge?

As Raymond Carver once wrote in a NY Times piece, “That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they better be the right ones.” So let us make sure we think carefully about them, choose and use them wisely, never weaponize them, and remember to enjoy them.


  • – Yes, I know that this is not technically an imaginary number. I am just employing poetic license.

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Canadians celebrate 2nd Annual Genetic Counselling Awareness Week

This week (November 20-26) genetic counsellors across Canada will be participating in the 2nd annual Genetic Counselling Awareness Week (see my post on this topic last year.) The theme for this year’s event is centered around dispelling common myths about genetics.

For a 2nd year in a row I am serving as a co-chair for this initiative, and for the second year in a row I am blown away by the amount of work and thought that GCs have put in to ensuring this week is a success.  Even seemingly simple events, such as organizing a trivia night or movie screening, require an incredible amount of planning and coordination. GCs in Canada are taking time out of their busy lives and are volunteering their time and expertise.

I am hoping to put together a follow-up post after this week is over, with a ‘behind the scenes’ look at GC Awareness Week, in the hopes that it might provide some insight and incentive for other countries to follow suit. But for now I will just leave you with some highlights of what is coming up this week:

  • Genetic Counsellors in Edmonton, Alberta and Winnipeg, Manitoba will be featured on local news programs.
  • Groups in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Ottawa, Ontario will each be hosting a trivia night at a local pub. The GCs in Winnipeg are hosting a similarly themed evening, using clips from popular television shows, to help dispel common myths about genetics.
  • Multiple movie screenings will be occurring across the country. Films being screened this year include: In the Family, Extraordinary Measures, GATTACA and At My Mother’s Breast. In most cases, a genetic counsellor panel discussion will follow.
  • Several centres will be setting up information booths within their institution, in order to liaise directly with patients and hospital staff.
  • Rumor has it an Alberta-based group will be putting together a fun-loving You Tube video this year. Click here for last year’s video from GCs at North York General Hospital.

For a full list of events and info, visit the GC Awareness Week website.

Want to help spread the word? Pass along any relevant info to family members and friends who live in Canada, or use the designated hashtags #GCAwarenessWeek #geneticcounselling and #CAGC when tweeting about GCAW or GC-related issues throughout the week.

Image credit: TheFutureisUnwritten (link to image here)

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Taking Exception to Genetic Exceptionalism

A recent situation in Ontario has prompted the discussion about whether or not it is appropriate for geneticists to act as gatekeepers of genetic testing. Essentially a policy change was made on the provincial level that would only allow for out-of-province funding for genetic tests when the test is ordered by a certified Canadian College of Medical Genetics (CCMG) geneticist. This change removed the ability of oncologists, cardiologists, neurologists and non-CCMG certified geneticists from ordering genetic tests as part of a diagnostic work-up for his or her patient. And, as a trickle-down effect, it hurt genetic counsellors working in specialty clinics with non-geneticists. For my US colleagues, I would loosely compare this situation to an insurance company only approving to cover the cost of genetic testing if that test was ordered by a geneticist certified by a specific certifying body. (As a side note: has anyone heard of this happening?)

For me, any discussion about the genetics community acting as ‘gatekeepers’ to genetic information naturally leads to a conversation about genetic exceptionalism. Defined as ‘the belief that genetic information is special and should be treated differently from other medical information,’ genetic exceptionalism is a natural topic for genetic counsellors, as we are specifically trained to communicate the unique nature of genetic testing to patients. In our training we learn over and over again about the potential harm (psychological, insurance) that can come from genetic testing for someone who was not properly informed about the test ahead of time. I graduated from my training program in 2008 believing that everyone undergoing a genetic test should have a genetics consultation first. And then I started at my first job.

Working in the adult genetics world I’ve increasingly felt that the field of genetics is actually very similar to other specialties, especially with respect to the diagnostic work-up. For example, if a drug-infusion study used by a cardiologist to assess for Brugada syndrome comes back negative, it reduces the likelihood of Brugada syndrome in that patient but doesn’t rule it out completely. How is this different from a negative genetic test result in which the mutation detection rate is only 75%? In genetics we commonly worry about how other specialists might interpret the ambiguity of a variant of unknown clinical significance. But I’d argue that this is no different than a brain MRI with non-specific equivocal changes. Most specialties (if not all) work with ambiguous results and data every day. So why is an ambiguous genetic test result so different?

I believe that we are firmly in an era where we need to promote collaboration and excluding other physicians from ordering genetic tests is likely to alienate specialties, rather than bring them together. Everyone agrees that increased genetics education in medical students and continuing education for practicing physicians is an important priority. But what better way to educate than through collaboration on a case? And yes, there is an important place for the traditional genetics and genetic counselling model, but applying the same model to every genetic test is short-sighted. While a handful of genetic tests represent ‘exceptional’ information and should be treated differently, the majority do not.

So, are genetic tests different enough from other medical tests that geneticists (or the genetics community) should act as gatekeepers of the information? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding no.

As for the Ontario policy, immediately following the release of the news, the genetics and non-genetics community was up-in-arms. Having no inside knowledge on the situation, it seems from the outside that this uproar was heard by the government, and the policy change has been put on hold, for now.

I know this is a loaded topic. For those who disagree with me, please share your comments below as I think this is an important debate for us to have out loud. While this shift for me occurred largely because of my work experience, I have a hunch that given the increase in use of genetic testing and the applicability of new genomic information, even seasoned counsellors may have altered their viewpoint on the ‘exceptionalism’ of genetics in the past few years. I’m interested to know: what is your opinion and has it shifted over time? Please cast your (anonymous) vote to my (very non-scientific) poll below.

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Understanding What’s Difficult about ‘Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis’

Recently, members of the NSGC received a booklet called Understanding a Down Syndrome Diagnosis, full of lovely pictures of children with Down syndrome and their families, accompanied by a factual but largely positive text (…“According to some studies, siblings of children with Down syndrome tend to be more compassionate and well-adjusted than their peers.”).  Though clearly intended to be both inoffensive and non-polemical, the guide provoked a debate on the NSGC list serve that was vintage genetic counselor, by which I mean that it was sincere, well-intentioned, polite and juiced by the belief that in doing the right thing in the right way, counselors could protect their patients from unnecessary emotional distress.

 The basic argument was this: was this booklet a useful tool for couples who had not yet decided what to do after a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, or did it paint such a rosy picture that it might make those who went on to choose termination feel judged?  Assuming we are all striving to be neutral, what is neutral?  Does it mean actively reaching out to present alternatives in a positive light and to counterbalance negative stereotypes, or is it more a matter of trying to intuit where the family is emotionally, and supporting that decision?  Is non-directiveness literally NON-directiveness, or is it perhaps closer to ALL-directiveness; is there a responsibility to establish that all possible options are legitimate and acceptable?

 Of course, as has been mentioned before, our baseline for “neutral” must take into account that we start this discussion in a hole: the fact that termination is on the table in the first place is, like it or not, something of a statement of where we stand on Down syndrome.  I think this is a reality that a lot of people in the field don’t see or don’t acknowledge, and which is self-evident to patients.  We are so wounded, as a group, by any suggestion that genetic counselors (of all people!) could harbor ill intentions toward individuals with Down syndrome.  We are improbably surprised when people make this connection.  I know a lot of you work with these families and adore these children and all that, but, you know, face facts, WE DO.  I mean, we (individually) DON’T, but we (collectively) DO.  Geneticists run studies to improve on the prenatal detection of Down syndrome.  Why do we do that?  To improve prenatal care?  Please.

 A friend of mine whose first four children were boys was talking to me once about the post-amnio results conversation she had with her genetic counselor for pregnancy number five.  She was offered the chance to find out the baby’s gender (she declined).  Everybody, including her neighbors, and her family, and the guy who worked at the ice cream truck, and certainly her genetic counselor, all knew that this woman was hoping and praying for a girl.  But had her counselor told her that the fetus was a boy, she would not have followed up that unwelcome piece of information with anxious questions about whether or not my friend would like to come in and discuss her options.  We test for Down syndrome in order to give the option of termination.  That is an essential truth.  Everything else is window-dressing.

 In fact, the discussion over this booklet raises a very fundamental question about whether or not our ideal of giving out information in a fashion that is both supportive and neutral is attainable.  Let’s be brutally realistic.  Parents of children with Down syndrome know that being given the choice to terminate is a commentary on how other people view their children with Down syndrome.   They know this because it is true.  And any image or anecdote or statistic showing how individuals with Down syndrome are beloved by their family members is bound to feel like a reproach to couples who decide to terminate.  You can certainly say these things with more sensitivity or less sensitivity, but they mean what they mean.  No amount of searching for the best language is going to change that.

 Well, for my own peace of mind I probably prefer to say some nice things about the joys of raising a child with Down syndrome, and give out this pretty booklet – after all, I am really – just like the rest of you – not against children of any sort, however abled.  But at the risk of ruffling even more genetic counselor feathers, I would like to wonder out loud whether this is mainly a benefit for me, as opposed to the family in question.  I think it comes down to this: how likely is it that a family’s decision will depend on their perception of what the genetic counselor thinks is a good idea?  Do we really have that much influence?  I kind of doubt it.  We may be able to affect how the couple feels about that decision to some small degree — to make them feel better (or worse).  We can certainly influence whether or not they look back on their experience with genetic counseling and think kindly of us.  But a couple has to be truly on the fence if the intervention of a third party who is a transient if well-informed presence in their lives is the actual deciding factor in how they feel about raising a child with disabilities. 

 So if we are only impacting how they feel about the decision and not the decision itself, is it necessary or even advisable to introduce information we think is important, and should we stick to giving them only whatever information they specifically request?  And if we want to demonstrate our bona fides about supporting families who choose to raise children with Down syndrome, perhaps we should think about creative and public ways to do just that, and not rely on the old idea that our personal neutrality in the confines of the counseling session is going to achieve the dual goal of enabling a family’s right to choose, and demonstrating our  respect and humanity for persons with genetic disabilities.

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Learning to Create Opportunity

This commentary is contributed as part of the guest blogger series Diverse GC Roles.

By Sarah Waltho, MS, CGC

Sarah Waltho received her undergraduate B.Sc. degree in Health Studies from the University of Waterloo in June 2006.  She went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Human Genetics from the Genetic Counselling Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York in May 2009.  After graduation, Sarah worked clinically at the Victoria hospital in London, Ontario as a counsellor for prenatal, cancer, metabolic and paediatric genetic cases.  She currently works for an American-based company, GeneDx , as the company’s sole Canadian Cardiac Product Specialist, where she is based in Toronto, Ontario and travels throughout Canada.

How it all started

 After spending two amazing years studying in the Big Apple, where I earned my Master’s degree while taking in the sights and sounds of New York in my down time, I had high hopes of returning to Ontario (some would call me crazy for leaving NYC, but that’s another story) and finding a position close to home.  Unfortunately, the job prospects in Ontario were anything but optimistic in the genetic counselling field.  So, I did what many other new grads find themselves doing…covering a maternity leave.  It was a lucky move for me, I started as a prenatal genetic counselor at a hospital in London, Ontario and was given the opportunity to take on roles in the pediatric, metabolic and cancer counselling clinics; and had the supervision and mentorship of a very smart, talented and dedicated group of genetic counsellors.

As my year went on, my time in that position was running out, and I began the search for another genetic counselling job, this time hoping to find something more permanent.

I exhausted the “usual suspects” (Workopolis, CAGC, NSGC websites) and applied to the handful of genetic counselling roles that came up.  After little success, I broadened my search and happened upon a job posting for a sales role in Chicago, for GeneDx.

My first thought was: Sales? The horror!  But quickly realizing that my ideal career of a counselling job, close to home may not be in the cards for me at this point in my life, and ever-embracing the reality of a “non-traditional role”, I decided to apply.

Only 20 minutes after hitting the “send” button of my application, something unusual happened:  I received a phone call from GeneDx, specifically, from my now current boss.  He said: “Sarah, I received your application, thank you for your interest”; he went on to say, “we have actually met before, and I remember you quite well.” I was thinking this may not go so well, and I racked my brain to try to remember when we would have met.  As it turned out, I had actually stopped by the GeneDx booth at an NSGC conference in Atlanta and had a conversation with my now current boss, who remembered our encounter (this may also have had to do with the fact that I took quite a few of their cute zebra giveaways!) He went on to say that I gave a lasting impression and they always appreciate hearing feedback from genetic counsellors.  After noticing that my resume had a Canadian address, he asked if I would be interested in an opportunity working out of Toronto (which was ideal!) and the rest is history.

Day to day life

So that brings me to today.  I am now the Canadian representative for GeneDx, specifically, their Cardiac Product Specialist.  I give presentations to both cardiology and genetic clinics, and play a vital role in keeping clinics current on test offerings and offering support and a resource for counsellors.  About half of my time involves travel (mostly across Canada, but also to the US).  I have the unique opportunity to be involved in the ever-evolving field of cardiac genetics, which has proved to be fascinating.

I originally had a few reservations about leaving the clinical world, especially so early on in my career. I was afraid I would not feel fulfilled in my role, that I may fall out of date, or that I would not be able to return to clinical role if I decided to.   I also feared I would feel some stigma from the field of genetic counseling.

As it turns out, I truly feel satisfied in my current career path and the position I hold.  Being actively involved as a patient advocate, though I no longer provide clinical counselling, my job works to bring genetics and cardiology together.

Working to support genetic counsellors and bringing feedback from the field to the laboratory has also been rewarding and helps keep me current in the field (as does my seemingly never-ending studying for Board exams…) I feel empowered and enlightened by being exposed to the laboratory and business side of genetic counselling and realize that this experience can only add to a genetic counsellor’s already broad skill set.

I have also felt that my role has been well received by both the cardiology and genetic counselling fields. GeneDx has been supportive of my role; they have hired many genetic counsellors into non-traditional roles.

Things I’ve learned

Taking on a “non-traditional role”…or, as I prefer, a term I recently heard in the field, a “diversified” genetic counselling role, has been a fulfilling and dynamic experience.

I feel that a genetic counsellor is an ideal fit for this type of work.  Having both an understanding of clinical/testing process, and a solid background in genetics, I am able to respond to feedback and support counsellors in the field, and work to fill any gaps, or provide genetic education to physicians.

Advice/closing comments

I can’t stress enough the importance of networking.  I wouldn’t be in the incredible position I am today if I hadn’t taken the time to attend the NSGC and stopped to speak with the people at the GeneDx booth.  So my advice to new grads or any genetic counsellor looking to expand his/her role, is to network, make contacts, get your name out there, see what other positions and career opportunities are out there, and broaden your job search criteria.  Networking at a conference is an especially unique opportunity to learn about what is going on in the field and meet new people in a relaxed climate.

My clinical work experience also proved invaluable, and I think that having some clinical experience after graduating is beneficial before taking on a non-traditional role.  It allowed me to practice things I learned throughout my training, and really allowed me to gain a better understanding of how a genetics clinic is organized and an appreciation for the role of genetic counsellors.

Genetics as a field is growing and developing in non-traditional ways, and it makes sense that the genetic counselling profession would evolve along a parallel path.  As genetic testing advances, the process and understanding becomes that much more complex.  Having genetic counsellors working outside their traditional roles, ensures we will have well informed professionals in these new areas of growth, that benefits not only doctors and counsellors, but also patients and families.

I really look forward to reading the other guest blogs this week, and I thank the DNA Exchange for giving me the opportunity to share my story.

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Genetic Counselling Awareness Week hits Canada!

Although I know much of our readership is US-based, I thought you would all be interested in an initiative of the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors (CAGC) that is taking place this week.

To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the CAGC, we’ve designated November 21-27 Genetic Counselling Awareness Week in Canada. As a Co-chair of this committee, it has been interesting and inspiring to see how this has developed into over the course of this year.

Rather than creating a structured event for GCs to carry out across the country, we put the control in GCs hands and challenged genetic counsellors nationwide to plan an initiative or event that would help to increase professional awareness in their own institution or community. The thinking behind this approach is that each region has it’s own unique strengths and challenges, and by allowing GCs to customize their message to their audience, we hope that we will have the most success in getting the word out.

We’ve created a website where we listed the events that will take place across the country this week. As I have been collecting this info from the various sites, it has been really fun to see what GCs have decided to do. Interestingly, several centres will be hosting film screenings, either in their own institution or at a community cinema. For example:

  • In Edmonton, Alberta there will be a screening of the documentary, In the Family, at a local theatre. This documentary follows a woman through her decision-making process regarding prophylactic surgery, after learning that she is a BRCA mutation carrier. Following the film, a genetic counsellor will lead a discussion regarding current practices in genetic counselling and genetic testing.
  • Genetic counsellors in Winnipeg, Manitoba have organized a screening of the documentary “Twisted” and a panel discussion in collaboration with the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation Canada. The documentary, by Laurel Chiten, weaves the stories of three dystonia sufferers as they seek treatment.
  • In Ottawa, Ontario, genetic counsellors are working in collaboration with local art company DNA11, have organized a screening of GATTACA. This late 90’s film explores the potential ethical issues that arise in a futuristic gene-centric society.

In Toronto we will be hosting a free community event at a local pub, where we will have a panel discussion and Q&A on the impact of genetic testing on individuals, families and society. Several centers plan to set up information booths in their hospital lobby and have arranged information sessions and lunch and learn events for hospital staff.

In it’s inaugural year, we expect to learn a lot and build on the experience for next year. We will collect feedback forms and photos and post them in the weeks to come on http://GeneticCounsellors.ca. Check back often to see how this develops. And who knows? Maybe next year we can collaborate with the NSGC to create a North America wide GC awareness initiative.

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