Tag Archives: professional issues

The GC Crucible: the pressures on modern genetic counselors open the doors to opportunity

A Guest Post By Brianne Kirkpatrick

In a chemistry lab, a ceramic crucible held over an open flame melds disparate materials into a single, new, cohesive thing. Indestructible, it stands up to the heat and pressure. When used in metaphor, it’s a severe test or tribulation that leads to transformation. What comes out of a metaphorical crucible is the true character brought about by the need to adapt and change in a new environment.

 

If there is one thing I can get behind, it’s a belief that our job as genetic counselors is getting

harder. We work in a cauldron of new pressures and new challenges, ones that are causing us to adapt and discover what is at the core of our profession and what make us strong and unique, as individuals and as a cohesive group. We’re in a crucible right now, and that Bunsen burner is cranked up high.

 

Our clinical challenge is that the more we learn about genetics, the more complexity we discover (see item two in Laura Hercher’s top ten stories list for 2015 ). More information makes our job harder, even as it provides new hope for our patients. Similarly, the challenges of discovery and complexity that complicate our lives also provide new opportunities for genetic counselors.

 

How do we capitalize on those opportunities? Here are three suggestions:

 

  1. Rally around the development of the Genetic Counseling Assistant vocation. The NSGC funded a grant to study this, and there have been discussions about this at recent meetings and on various listservs. GCAs job are available, and individuals are employed as GCAs around the country already, in laboratory and clinical settings. Like a para-legal to a lawyer, GCAs master administrative tasks and carry the burden of extra work that often sidelines the genetic counselor or reduces his or her efficiency – phone calls, paper work, records requests, insurance pre-certifications, initial intakes, and the like. The only way we are going to keep up with the demand for GC services is to increase efficiency for ourselves and free up genetic counselors from work that impedes their ability to serve all who need and are seeking their services.

 

  1. Evolve or die. We as a profession must figure out how the future of genomics will include us. To do this we must immerse ourselves in current issues – in the clinic, in the research world, in the spheres of business and government – and then speak up when the genetic counselor voice must be heard. Get involved in your state’s genetic counselors’ group (consider founding one if it doesn’t exist). Volunteer in groups and for projects of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Develop a professional social media presence. I chose to involve myself in the NSGC Public Policy Committee, believing strongly that taking a stand on issues of policy that affect us as genetic counselors allows us to determine our profession’s destiny, not others. Every committee and special interest group and task force of the NSGC contributes important work to the genetic counseling profession, but none of that work happens unless individuals decide to take that step and get involved.

 

  1. Embrace the expansion of our professional opportunities, despite the shortage of genetic counselors to fill existing clinical and laboratory roles. GC’s are finding opportunities to do something new and different, which is fitting for a group who collectively are thinkers outside of boxes. For as long as the profession has existed, GCs have used creativity, ingenuity and chutzpah, trailblazing new roles out of necessity. In every city and in every specialty area, there was a “first” GC there. If you have been contemplating blazing your own trail, now might be a good time to test out the waters, to find your niche and try something you’ve been dreaming of.

 

There are role models for those looking for them, as GCs excel at identifying needs and making connections. We’re problem-solvers and sleuths, and we’re a resourceful bunch. From this, we have seen Bonnie Liebers develop Genetic Counseling Services, which creates specialized teams of genetic counselors for growing businesses who need them, utilizing a world-wide network of CGCs. A group of GCs recently published an article in the Journal of Genetic Counseling sharing their experiences working for startup companies. I recently launched my own solo venture, WatershedDNA, to provide consultations on ancestry and other home DNA tests, both privately and as a part of larger projects or for companies. The niche I found was filling a need for genetic genealogists, adult adoptees, the donor-conceived community and others, all of them looking for someone who understood the psycho-social dimensions and the science behind genetic testing for ancestry and ethnicity. A perfect role for a genetic counselor, and a match for my own natural interests and passion.

 

Currently, I work one-on-one with clients referred to me by the genetic genealogy community, mostly individuals who have already pursued a home DNA test or are considering it. Just as in a clinical setting, we begin with family history when available and identify a client’s goals and areas of concern. We review any results they already have and discuss additional testing options, and how they might affect them and family members, now and in the future. Working fee for service and owning my own business come with financial uncertainty and lots of unknowns, but it gives me other freedoms, including flexibility and the sense of adventure that comes with pursuing an entrepreneurial path (like my father and grandfather – genetics?). It isn’t easy; I’m a worrier by nature, and some days that Bunsen feels like it’s a-burnin’ hotter than usual. But like the genetic counseling profession as a whole, I’ve found myself in the midst of a crucible that isn’t trying to destroy me; it is providing me an opportunity. A chance to change and create, to extend the reach of genetic counselors. It will engender a future of great things, if I allow it.

 

Let’s be willing to face the uncertainty that the wild west of genetics brings, be daring, and embrace the shades of gray as we blaze new trails. None of us chose the profession of genetic counseling because we thought it would be easy.

 

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Filed under Guest Blogger

Work, Life & Flexibility in Genetic Counseling

Work/life balance is one of the perks of our profession. Right?

I remember learning that great work/life balance was a benefit of the profession when considering genetic counseling as a career. I now routinely share this ‘fact’ with students who are interested in learning more about becoming a genetic counselor. In comparison with most of my friends– who work in advertising, pr, law and finance– my work/life balance is incredible. I can put in a full day of work, head to the gym and be home by 7pm to enjoy a leisurely evening. My hours are very predictable – and when I leave work I’m not on my phone all night like so many others I know.  So, last summer when the popular article Why woman still can’t have it all was circulating among my female friends, I read it with some distance

The author Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor and former director of policy planning at the State Department, challenges the popular assumptions that if a woman 1) has enough ambition, 2) marries a supportive-enough partner and 3) plans her pregnancies accordingly, she can have a successful career in a position of power and nurture a happy and healthy family life all at once.

In her words,

Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation…I still strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too). I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.” But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.

The author goes on to argue that having flexibility in the workplace (namely the ability to determine your own schedule and work from home when needed) is one of the single most important factors in helping to balance a successful career and busy home life.

I am currently on maternity leave, and thinking back to this article I realize that the author’s focus on flexibility really stuck with me. While there are many things I enjoy about working in a busy clinical setting, flexibility is not one of them.

F&A June 2013

If I’m not able to make it in for my 9am patient, then it falls on the shoulders of a colleague, pushing back her own 9:30am appointment, which in turn will affect a whole day full of patients. Like many counselors I know, I very rarely miss a day of work unscheduled. But as I look towards the future imagining an ill child or a caregiver who calls in sick—I realize I may no longer have as much control as I used to. I am reminded daily by my giggling and communicative 5-month old daughter that it is no longer just me I have to worry about. I’m learning that my definition of ‘work/life balance’ may be about to change.

Out of curiosity, I went to Professional Status Survey to get a sense of how we as a profession rate our work/life balance.  Looking at the most recent versions of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors surveys, it appears that the question has not been formally asked.

Beyond the clinic

Increasingly, genetic counsellors are working in a wider category of roles and environments. In fact, we have used this blog to highlight diverse GC roles in the past. My childless self had previously seen this primarily as a sign of the genetics field expanding. But it now occurs to me, this may also be in part a result of GCs looking to find a professional opportunity that better suits their lifestyle. I recently came across a nice interview on the Counsyl blog about a genetic counselors’ decision to trade-in clinical life to work from home that would support this view.

The trend towards a non-traditional work environment is happening in almost every sector. Many argue that our society is at a turning point, where lengthening commutes and new technological capabilities are prompting employees and employers to re-consider the traditional workday. For instance, Medcan Clinic – my current employer – has recently increased our services to include Saturday clinics. As our society – including our patient population – increasingly values flexibility, our profession will have to continue to adapt. Responding to changing patient and employee schedules will likely become an even bigger focus in the coming years; and as a result we can expect to see the creation of even more non-traditional services, roles and communication formats.

How might the GC profession maintain its positive work/life reputation in a world that increasingly values flexibility?

The medical world tends to lag other professional service industries when it comes to making change. I recognize that the structure of the traditional genetics clinic will not likely undergo any wholesale changes overnight. Nevertheless, I think this is an important conversation for us to start having now. In fact, I’ll be participating in a panel on technology and innovative communication in genetic counseling at this year’s NSGC conference in Anaheim (excuse the shameless plug).

I would love to hear from other GCs who have thoughts and experiences around this topic. Where do you think the GC role currently stacks up for work/life balance? Have you found ways to integrate more flexibility into your role? Where do you see opportunities & challenges for GCs to better manage work/life as our profession evolves?

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Filed under Allie Janson Hazell

Blind Spot: Genetic Counselors and Financial Conflict of Interest

Many people don’t know that the human eye has a blind spot in its field of vision. There is a part of the world that we are literally blind to. The problem is, sometimes our blind spots shield us from things that really shouldn’t be ignored. Sometimes our blind spots keep our lives bright and shiny.
– Meredith Grey, character from ABC TV Series Grey’s Anatomy

It’s safe to say that genetic counselors are not in it for the money. I prefer to believe that our practice is guided by what we perceive to be our patients’ best clinical and psychosocial interests, with no concern for fiscal gain for ourselves. But however bright and shiny we may be, we are only human and subject to the same economic pressures, character flaws, and temptations as everybody else. I am not claiming that there is wide scale greed and corruption in the profession. What worries me more is that our blind spot can prevent us from detecting or admitting the possibility of a conflict of interest.

This topic has not been openly discussed among genetic counselors, so it’s about time the subject was broached. I suspect this discussion will evoke discomfort, defensiveness, and not a little denial.  Financial conflicts of interest might arise in many areas of genetic counseling but I will explore just three: when genetic counselors work for laboratories as expert advisors on genetic testing, when we need to justify our clinical positions to hospital administrators, and at our  annual education conference.

 Medical laboratories and their employees are driven by a genuine desire to help referring physicians and their patients. I have been uniformly impressed by the help I receive from lab counselors who have walked me through the testing maze in complicated clinical situations. But let’s face it – labs are profit-driven corporate entities. If an insufficient number of tests are ordered, the laboratory and its investors lose money. Hopefully laboratory directors do not set monthly test quotas (“Resta, I better see 150 TRFs for our new autism screen next month or you are out of a job.”). But if the number of tests drops below a certain threshold, some manager somewhere is going to notice. Labs may choose to discontinue that particular test, but more likely they will try to boost test uptake.
The need to make a profit, with the attendant job security for us, is a powerful motivator that can subconsciously influence conversations between lab counselors and healthcare providers. Think of those gray situations where multiple tests can be ordered but it is unclear just how likely they are to be positive or clinically useful (“Well, this doctor does not want to leave any stone unturned  in working up this family so maybe I should suggest Test X that she hadn’t thought of, even if is very unlikely to be positive and will not change clinical management.”).
Or consider labs that offer SNP testing for risk assessment for common disorders like diabetes or cardiovascular disease, tests that do not yet have proven clinical value. One might justify such testing under the rubric of “Patients Have A Right To Know.” But patients also assume that because a test is available and yields a precise sounding risk estimate, it must have some clinical value, and therefore patients think they have a right to know. Is offering such tests motivated by an altruistic desire to ensure that patients’ rights are not denied, by profit-seeking, or by misguided clinical judgment? The answer is murky.

Genetic counselors who work in medical centers are just as liable to conflicts of interest as their laboratory counterparts. In these tough economic times, we are being called upon to justify our jobs to administrators who face dwindling budgets and might have less of an appreciation for clinical and psychosocial issues. In response, we might look to increase our patient volumes, and one way to do that is to expand the indications for referral to genetic counseling beyond what might be considered “medically necessary.” You might then tell your boss that broadened guidelines will increase downstream revenue through more extensive screening and increased rates of prophylactic surgery. Surely we are not talking our patients into salpingo-oophorectomies or breast MRIs to enrich the hospital’s coffers or to secure our jobs, but that is the  message we are communicating to hospital administration (for the moment, ignoring the fact that we have little data to prove that assertion).

Or think about fetal diagnostic testing through maternal serum, which will presumably reduce the need for amniocentesis and CVS. Even if maternal serum testing proves to be not quite  diagnostic and still require invasive testing for verification, First Positive rates will be much lower than with traditional serum/ultrasound screening. This in turn might lower departmental revenue by reducing the number of counseling referrals,  invasive procedures, and karyotypes. Just how will those economic considerations affect our job security, how we evaluate these new tests, how we present them to our patients, and how we integrate them into our clinics?

The National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC), our collective face that we present to the public, has expanded its financial relationship with private laboratories. For example, in 2011, about 25% of the revenue from the Annual Education Conference came from corporate exhibitors and sponsors (contributing ~$216,000 of the total conference revenue of ~$820,000). Our professional relationships with labs are critical on many levels. But  accepting money  from them tacitly – if not officially – condones their services. NSGC would probably not accept certain labs as exhibitors or sponsors if those labs offered questionable  services, like using genetic testing to find the perfect mate or to improve your sex life through nutrigenomics. Excluding some labs lends a certain amount of legitimacy to those labs  from whom we do accept funds.

And let’s not forget those breakfasts and evening debaucheries that some private labs sponsor at every Annual Education Conference, or those  exhibitor booths where we fill our corporate-logo imprinted conference tote bags with giveaway geegaws and doodads (“Oh, I’m just bringing these home for my kids. I am certainly not going to use this lab just because they gave me a glow in the dark double helix pen and a piece of chocolate. Even if it is a Dove dark chocolate.”).

You are deluding yourself if you think these drinks and trifles do not subtly affect your selection of  a lab to run your tests. Just about every research study on this topic has concluded that those not-so-freebies do influence healthcare providers. Besides, if those giveaways didn’t help a business’s bottom line, do you think they would waste money giving them away? And when we go home and take those tote bags to the grocery like responsible Green Citizens, we become walking billboards that announce to the world that NSGC and Lab X are awfully cozy with each other.

I am not saying that genetic counselors should be unconcerned about their institutions’ bottom lines, or that the NSGC should abandon relationships with corporate sponsors. I have no idea of the magnitude of the problem because it has not been systematically studied. It is almost impossible to study it ourselves; those of us in the middle of are likely to have a hard time seeing it. Somebody outside of our profession needs to study this.

What the profession can do for itself is to clearly define financial conflicts of interest and develop guidelines to help genetic counselors navigate the treacherous waters of the Great Sea of Conflicts of Interest.

Am I being overly worried? Are there other aspects of genetic counseling that are vulnerable to these concerns? Share your thoughts and comments and air out this dusty old closet that we have avoided opening.

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Filed under Robert Resta

Social Media as Support Resources

Some of you may remember a post I made a few months ago, Emerging Technology vs Old School. I discussed briefly how we have to find ways to incorporate technology into our profession in positive ways.  I also touched on how we cannot forget that there are people who do not have access to technology and they ARE getting left behind.

We cannot ignore either group.  How can we make sure both groups have access to the same information but in different ways?  This is not the main focus of this post.  I just wanted to remind readers that even though in this post I focus on resources that are more available to people who have access to technology, we must not forget that not everyone has access.

Facebooking, Twittering, and Blogging are what I think of when I think of social media.  Facebook groups can serve as support groups.  Blogs can serve as an excellent way to share thoughts and emotions.  Twitter can help connect people going through similar situations.

Since I have Google alerts set up on my Google readers I oftentimes run across blogs written by people who have experienced genetic counseling or have children with genetic conditions.  I have found that reading strangers’ blog posts about their daily life with a genetic condition and their perspective of genetic counseling has taught me so much more than I could ever learn from reading a textbook.

I get their honest opinion.  I learn how misconceptions develop.  I learn about different attitudes and perspectives.  I learn more about people’s thought processes.  This allows me to see their situation from their point-of-view which in turn helps me as a genetic counselor.  An example of a powerful blog website is, CaringBridge.

CaringBridge is a blog website that “connects family and friends when health matters the most.”

“Human connection. That’s the heart of the CaringBridge experience.”

I have read several CaringBridge blogs written by parents with children who have a genetic condition.  I have also read CaringBridge blogs written by people with genetic conditions.  I have read personal stories about how many families are thankful for CaringBridge blogs.  It allows them to share news with concerned ones without having to worry about making multiple calls.  It allows them to express personal thoughts through writing that they may not normally express which helps with the coping process.  It also allows them to find other people who are going through similar situations as they are.  It makes people feel less lonely during scary times.

If used correctly, social media could be a great support resource for patients.   Social media should NEVER replace actual information or serve as a sole resource.   They should simply serve as support resource in the same sense as recommending books and connecting patients who may be going through similar situations.

Would you (or have you) ever suggest social media as a form of support resource for your patients?   How do you make sure it’s appropriate for your patient?

Would you ever use social media as a teaching tool for yourself or for genetic counselor students?  If so, how do you do this?

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Filed under Kelly Rogel

Emerging Technology vs Old School

I don’t know about you but I have a love-hate relationship with technology.  It can make things simpler but it can also make things more difficult.  There are days where I miss old school…..you know….regular paper and pens.  There are also days where I am thankful for oodles of information available at a click.

Regardless of if you love or hate technology, we are in the middle of a technology revolution.  We  have to figure out ways to incorporate technology into our profession in positive ways.   We cannot ignore this revolution.

There has already been some resistance to the incorporation of technology within our profession.   There has been a lot of valid concerns about direct-to-consumer services, telephone genetic counseling, and online family history/pedigree programs.

Patient 2.0 is the concept where people meet online to discuss their health, clinical trials, which hospitals to avoid, which doctors to see, and treatments.  While this encourages people to take charge of their health it can be a danger if they believe inaccurate information found online.   Does Patient 2.0 do more harm than help or is it vice versa?

You can even ask healthcare questions on Twitter.  You can easily search for genetics apps on your iPhone/iTouch.  Some of these apps include; MGenetics, PubSearch, NextBio (correlated data from all public gene expression experiments), Odd Diseases: Genetics, and BioGene).  You can even listen to podcasts or genetic lectures at iTunes U.  If used correctly, apps could be developed to exposure middle and high school students to  the field of genetics.  Apps could also be developed as study tools for genetic counselors, however, we should not depend on these apps.

*Start rant:  Most podcasts and lectures are NOT captioned.  If you ever find yourself making a podcast please subtitle, caption, or make a transcript available.  THANK YOU! *End rant* 🙂

There is a new form being formed and it is a group with full access to technology.  What about those who do not have access to technology (e.g. Internet)?

Two concerns I would like to touch on:

1)      Should healthcare information online be regulated?  Should we start exploring ways to teach the public the limits of technology (e.g. don’t believe everything you read online)?

2)      It is easy to get lost in this technology revolution.  There will soon be a forgotten group.  People who do not have access to or do not feel comfortable with technology will be left behind.   How do we make sure this group will always have equal access to genetic services/information?

How can we combine the pros of both technology and old school in order to provide high quality genetic services for EVERYONE?

Thoughts?

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Filed under Kelly Rogel

Practicing What We Preach: Genetic Counselors, Disability, and Advocacy

Disclaimer:  I do not consider my deafness a disability, however, society defines it as a disability.   Therefore, I utilize quote marks and refer to it as “disability.”

As genetic counselors we are trained to respect and advocate for patients.  We are also trained to not to make pre-assumptions about their strengths, skills, and weaknesses.  Our training doesn’t always seem to apply outside of the counselor-patient setting.

As a deaf person, I knew it would be a difficult journey when I first applied to genetic counseling programs.  Little did I know how difficult it would be as a deaf person to find my place in this profession.  Genetic counselors learn about many different genetic conditions and work with many people who have various genetic conditions.  Oftentimes these genetic conditions fall under the category that society labels “disabilities.”  Even though I do not consider myself to have a “disability,” other genetic counselors sometimes took a different view.

Here are just a few of the barriers I have faced in this field because of my deafness:

  • I have been rejected from genetic counseling programs solely because I was deaf.
  • When I was invited for interviews for genetic counseling programs, I didn’t always have an interpreter available for the whole interview.
  • I was told by rotation supervisors that deaf people should not be genetic counselors.

The list goes on and on but my personal struggles are not the main focus of this post.  I just used some of my personal experiences to serve as examples.

Fortunately, these attitudes are not universal among all genetic counselors.  I have had some positive experiences during my brief career.  For example, I have never had people advocate for me as much as some groups within this field have.   It wasn’t until I started graduate school that, for the first time in my life, I truly felt like there were people out there who did want to see me succeed and were willing to go out of their way to advocate for me.

The barriers I have faced within this profession has made me question how genetic counselors truly view people with “disabilities.”  It has made me question if genetic counselors feel equal or above their patients who have “disabilities.”  Do genetic counselors serve as advocates because of some sort of deep need to help “poor unfortunates” or do they like being in the helper role and not because they truly want to see their patients be successful?  This is a very difficult question to ask of the profession and of ourselves.

I am playing the role of the devil’s advocate here.  This is not intended to be an attack against the genetic counseling profession.  Rather this post is intended to hopefully encourage genetic counselors to question why they may advocate for a person if they’re a patient but not if they’re not a patient.  What does it tell us about ourselves? Why does it appear that the role of serving as advocates have boundaries?  Where are those boundaries?  Should there even be boundaries?

Does it mean society’s attitude towards people with “disabilities” is so powerful and ingrained in us that we have to be specifically trained how to advocate and be on neutral grounds when counseling patients?   Does it mean our training is not good enough for it to cross over in all other aspects of our profession?

Is it that “disability” seems to go hand in hand with being a patient and it’s hard to separate those two?  Is it time to change our perspectives of people with “disabilities” to more than just patients?

I know it is possible for genetic counselors to pull together and advocate for other people.  My question is why doesn’t this happen on a more consistent basis?

Do genetic counselors need to analyze their perspectives on “disabilities” more thoroughly?  How can this be done?  I would love to see this profession become more welcoming to those with “disabilities” instead of constantly questioning their ability.  Oftentimes what one may see as a “disability” is that person’s strength.

I have seen this profession make attempts to make this field more diverse.  Usually diversity is thought to include people from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and religion background.  Why can’t diversity include people with “disabilities?”

I have learned so much from people within this field who have pulled together to advocate for me when the profession tried to work against me.  I want to make this field more accessible to people with “disabilities.” I want to pay forward what I have been given.

I genuinely want to hear your opinion regarding this topic.  It’s the only way I can start to understand why there are so many barriers within this profession and why we only seem to apply our training in certain settings (e.g. patients vs. professionals).

Changes won’t happen until we understand.  To understand something, we need to explore and question things.

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Filed under Kelly Rogel

Professional Certification Debate

I wrote on this blog earlier regarding anxiety surrounding the new ABGC certification exam. To my personal relief, I found out this week that I am amongst those who passed. However, I cannot help but wonder how the passing score was determined and what this new exam means for our profession. What does a passing score on this paricular exam really tell employers, doctors, and patients? Question-Marks

I have spoken to a number of counselors who felt the exam was not focused enough on the genetics that we have worked so hard to become beyond competent in. While I have many thoughts and concerns about the meaning of this exam and its impact on future of the profession, I am going to await further explanation from the ABGC before I write on this more.

If you want an excellent summary of the ongoing discussion amongst genetic counselors about the validity of the exam and results, please check out the blog authored by SLC graduates Sarah Savage and Catherine Clinton:

http://gcqc.wordpress.com/

I am particulary interested in how the previously certified counselors feel about the use of this new exam. Please leave your comments here or at the above named blog.

ANOTHER THOUGHT:  Maybe we should consider moving foward with a general genetic counseling exam and then have subspecialty GC exams i.e prenatal, cancer, metabolic, pediatrics, etc..so we can show where we have special genetics knowledge? Similar to the way in which the ABMG grants their certifcation to biochemical geneticists or cytogeneticists. THOUGHTS?

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Filed under Jessica Giordano