Expanding Role for Genetics Counselors

Human Genome

The completion of the human genome sequencing launches a new era in genetic medicine. With the decoding of the letters that make up the recipe of human life an opportunity now exists for scientists to discover new cures for cancer, heart disease, drug addiction, neurological disorders and mental illness. In this brave new world of medicine, the human genetics counselor will play an increasingly important role as patients and doctors struggle with the impact of these exciting new breakthroughs. The Human Genetics Program at Sarah Lawrence College the oldest and largest training program for genetic counselors in the United States, is well positioned to take on this challenge.

Many ethical dilemmas have surfaced. For example, should people be tested to determine whether they might later develop a disease if there is no cure for that disease? Should fetal genetic testing extend beyond the health of a baby to screen for desirable physical and mental traits?

A recent study conducted by the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington published in Genetics in Medicine, found that 70 percent of health care practitioners surveyed had discussed genetics with their clients. Yet fewer than 10 percent of those people surveyed - including physical therapists, speech and hearing therapists and social workers - were confident in their training in these issues. According to Dr. E. Virginia Lapham, the lead author of the study, a need exists to expand genetic education programs for health professionals.

"As the field broadens, the need for more counselors and more thorough training will also increase," says Lauren Scheuer, a genetic counselor at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a graduate of the Sarah Lawrence Program. "At the present time there are a finite number of genetic counselors in the field. As more and more complex medical information becomes available to patients and their families, there will be an increasing need for trained professionals to help sort out the all the issues and ramifications."

The two-year master's program at Sarah Lawrence began in 1969 and trains 25 counselors per class. Half of the nation's genetic counselors, including the directors of many other human genetics programs in the U.S. and Canada and in other parts of the world, are graduates of the SLC Program.

Genetic counselors work as members of a health-care team, providing information and support to families that have members who have birth defects or genetic disorders, or who may be at risk for a variety of inherited conditions, says Caroline Lieber, program director. "We identify families at risk, interpret information about the disorder, analyze inheritance patterns and risks of recurrence, discuss the risks, benefits, and limitations of genetic testing, review available options with families and provide supportive counseling," she added.

Human genetics counselors also serve as patient advocates, educators, administrators, researchers and resources for health-care professionals and the public. The importance of training in the field of human genetics counseling is demonstrated by the success of the Sarah Lawrence graduates. Genetics programs at major teaching hospitals, other colleges and universities, government agencies and corporations are staffed by Sarah Lawrence College graduates. These include the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Center for Disease Control, Glaxo Wellcome and Applied Genetics.

"This is a field with definite career opportunities and is well suited to individuals interested in being on the leading edge of medical research, and with an interest and commitment to helping others and making a difference." says Lieber.