Demand for genetic counselors growing
In this era of individualism and customization, the “one size fits all” approach is becoming extinct. Whether it’s food, fashion, cars, technology, education or health care, today’s consumers expect experiences to be customized to reflect their unique personalities and individual needs.
While clinicians have always aimed to treat patients as individuals, available treatment options sometimes have a “one size fits all” feel. This means that two people with seemingly the same diagnosis might receive the same treatment, which could be successful for one person, yet not for the other.
However, recent advances in medical research and a renewed focus on genetics is changing this approach.
In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama announced the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative — a new research approach to medicine that accounts for individual differences in people’s genes, environments and lifestyles. Advances in Precision Medicine are already leading to powerful new discoveries and several new treatments tailored to specific characteristics, such as a person’s genetic makeup.
Investment in Precision Medicine, coupled with increased public interest in the genetics of certain cancers thanks largely to the “Angelina Jolie effect,” may be propelling the demand for genetic screening and genetic counseling.
The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics projects a 29 percent increase in the employment of genetic counselors in the next 10 years, compared to seven percent average growth for most health care professions. Yet, the current graduation rate of qualified, licensed counselors entering the profession is significantly less than that, according to a recent study led by Vivian Pan, a certified genetic counselor with the Division of Genetics at Advocate Health Care.
Pan, who sees patients at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill. and Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., is among a small but growing division of clinicians trained in genetic counseling, appropriate genetic test selection and interpretation and dealing with the impact of genetic testing on patients and their families. Currently, the clinic has three geneticists and six genetic counselors who provide services in the areas of prenatal, pediatric, cancer, adult and general genetics. Genetic testing can significantly influence screening recommendations, referrals to additional specialists, treatment and medication management, pregnancy management and postnatal care, and for young children, better anticipatory guidance for the future.
Pan said she has seen the demand for their services increase significantly over the past few years and wait times are increasing.
“Currently, we are able to see patients who require an urgent consult within one to three days and non-urgent cases within less than two weeks; however, certain specialty cases may be much longer due to limited available resources,” said Pan. “With increasing demand, it may become more difficult to maintain wait times in the coming years if the supply of genetic counselors does not increase.”
Pan said she sees this demand continuing to grow as more genetic tests become available and as knowledge of medical genetics is integrated into other areas of medicine.
“I think genetic counselors will take on expanded roles in a variety of fields within oncology, pediatrics, cardiology, neurology, psychiatry, endocrinology and pharmacogenetics, to name a few,” said Pan.
The genetics team at Advocate is currently designing a system to identify patients who may be at high risk of cancer, developing criteria for appropriate genetic testing to reduce health care costs, and implementing a telegenetics program, where counselors are available to other providers via video conferencing.
Pan hopes that the recent interest in genetics from Washington and mainstream media may encourage more clinicians to enter the field to meet future demand.
“We need to recognize genetic counselors as independent providers and deal with issues of billing and reimbursement for genetic services,” said Pan. “And we need to think about ways to increase the number of genetic counseling students we can train and send into the field.”
About the Author
Tonya Lucchetti-Hudson, health enews contributor, is public affairs director for Advocate Medical Group and Advocate Physician Partners.