Innovating to Meet the Demands of a dynamic field

As genomics and genetic testing continue to advance technologically, there is a growing need for genetic counselors who can translate genetic data into effective and compassionate patient care.

The University of Washington is addressing that need with its new Genetic Counseling Graduate Program. This full-time, 18-month program prepares graduates to meet the evolving needs of patients and their families with a broad range of genetic conditions.

“The demand is skyrocketing for genetic counselors,” said Robin Bennett, the acting director of the new master’s program. “With the growth of genetic testing at all phases of life — children at birth, people who seek genetic counseling before or during pregnancy, people wanting to learn about cancer risk, geriatric care — I think everyone will have a genetic counselor touch their lives at some point.”

Genetic counselors help patients create a visual map of their family’s history of major medical conditions, then use that map to help patients determine whether they may benefit from genetic testing for themselves or others in their family.

Bennett — a licensed genetic counselor, clinical professor at the UW Department of Medicine and the co-director of the Genetic Medicine Clinic — said that there are scant educational opportunities for students in this part of the country who want to pursue a genetic counseling degree. 

“There was a great need for a genetic counseling program in our region, particularly in Washington state,” Bennett said. “We saw an opportunity with Continuum College, the University of Washington School of Medicine, the Division of Medical Genetics and the Public Health Genetics program to move this master’s program forward.”

“The Department of Medicine, the Institute for Public Health Genetics and the Brotman Baty Institute provided seed funding that allowed us to finally realize our long-time goal of a UW Genetic Counseling training program,” said Dr. Gail Jarvik, the program medical director and head of the Division of Medical Genetics. “The UW is one of the best training environments in the country for genetic and genomics and this was a missing piece.”

The Genetic Counseling Graduate Program's inaugural class will start in September 2021 with a proposed 66-credit curriculum taught by experts in clinical and laboratory genetic counseling, medical genetics, statistical genetics and genetic epidemiology.

The first year will focus on the foundational skills, theories and underlying science of genetic counseling. In year two, students will take a professional issues course, which will teach them how to translate the skills they’ve learned into real practice, and an advanced genetic counseling skills course. Beginning in the third quarter of the program, each student will participate in clinical and laboratory fieldwork rotations.

These rotations, where students will practice genetic counseling skills under supervision by experienced genetic counselors, will take place at the University of Washington and the program’s network of affiliated clinical sites, including Seattle Children’s Hospital and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

To finish their studies, each master’s student will complete a capstone project. Graduates of the program will be eligible to take the genetic counseling board exam to become a certified genetic counselor.

“Our program follows a cohort model meaning that each student progresses through the curriculum together with the other students in their class,” said Brad Rolf, the acting associate program director. “The first cohort will include 14 students, increasing to 18 by the program’s third year, making it one of the largest genetic counseling programs in the country.”

To thrive in genetic counseling, prospective students must possess both an understanding of the hard sciences, curiosity and a desire to serve others — an equal emphasis on both the “genetics” and “counseling” parts of the job.

“It’s important to provide psychological support for our patients, so they feel empowered in making next steps and not feeling like they’re just being told what to do,” Bennett said. “Even if a visit doesn’t result in a genetic test, it can be just as empowering to find out that the risks aren’t as high as you thought. Some people shy away from the word ‘counseling,’ but in terms of genetic counseling, it’s really helping a person make an informed decision that’s right for them.”

Given its 18-month duration and high employability, the program is a unique opportunity for students to quickly become vital parts of the genomic medicine work force. The program is hoping to attract donations for financial aid scholarships for disadvantaged persons to have this opportunity.

“We welcome diverse and collaborative perspectives from our learners, clinical supervisors and program faculty,” Bennett said.

Learn more about the Genetic Counseling Graduate Program or sign up to receive email updates.