New genetic counseling program anticipates workforce needs in genomics and precision health

May 06, 2022
Libby Malphrus demonstrates the role of a genetic counselor.
Genetic counselor Libby Malphrus demonstrates how she'd talk with a patient. Photo by Jonathan Coultas

Genetic counseling, recently named one of the most in-demand jobs for 2022 by Reader’s Digest, is the focus of an ambitious new degree track at the Medical University of South Carolina. The program, which organizers hope will begin accepting applications this September, could dramatically increase the number of genetic counseling student slots in South Carolina.

“We have the goal of enrolling 20 students in our first class,” said division director and certified genetic counselor Kim Foil. “We'll be the second program in the state. There’s one at the University of South Carolina. They take a class of nine. So we'd be making a pretty significant change in the availability of training for people in South Carolina and beyond. Additionally, we’ll be the first in the Southeast region to offer a hybrid program with remote learning options to appeal to nontraditional learners. Students only have to come to campus for clinical rotations.”

The planned master’s degree program in the College of Health Professions at MUSC is in the process of seeking accreditation, which Foil expects it to earn in winter of 2023. “There’s definitely a need for more training programs. The field has more than doubled in size in the last 10 years but remains a pretty small profession with just over 5,000 genetic counselors nationally. With major advances in genomics and precision medicine, we expect continued growth in the coming years. In South Carolina, specifically, the workforce is expected to grow by 66% from 2018 to 2028.”

Kim Foil 
Kim Foil

There are just 52 genetic counseling programs in the U.S., Foil said, with an average class size of nine to 10 students. There are consistently more than three applicants per training spot nationally, making program admissions competitive. Students often apply to multiple programs, sometimes over multiple years. All genetic counseling programs participate in the National Matching Services Inc., which matches accepted applicants with the best slot available to them.

“Following review of applications, and usually personal interviews with select candidates, each program sends the match system a list of students that they'd like to have, in order of preference. Students do the same thing with the programs. There's an automated process that lines up those matches and gives everyone the best possible opportunity available,” Foil said.

There are three major clinical areas of genetic counseling students can consider after graduation: cancer genetics, prenatal genetics and pediatric genetics. But Foil said subspecialties, such as cardiovascular and neurology, are growing, too, as are roles in laboratories, research, education, advocacy and beyond. Genetic counseling training programs provide training across all of these content areas to prepare students for a wide array of professional opportunities.

“A genetic counselor helps patients and families understand genetic risk, access testing and receive an accurate diagnosis that can guide patient management and improve outcomes. Genetic counselors pay close attention to family history,” Foil said.

“Since we share genes with our relatives, a genetic condition in one person often has implications for the family. Others may be at risk or affected as well and may benefit from counseling and early recognition.”

In addition to extensive training in medical genetics, genetic counselors learn the skills needed to connect with each patient and guide informed decision-making and adaptation to a condition. 

“We learn about a patient's background, what's important to them and where they are in their medical journey. We help them make the most of medical and genetic information and get access to resources that can help them, including multidisciplinary specialty care, psychosocial resources like ongoing counseling, rare disease foundations, support groups and things of that nature,” Foil said.

She called genetic counseling an exciting profession. “It's certainly evolving all the time. New information is continually learned about the genomics of health and disease, and technology advances have made genetic testing much more affordable and accessible. Genomic health care is really being incorporated across all areas of medicine. So it's a continual learning experience, and it's a great balance between the hard science and really getting to know people.”

She said it’s also rewarding. “Most genetic counselors are happy with their career choice and job satisfaction tends to be high on all the professional surveys conducted. The average salary for all genetic counselors nationally is around $98,000, with the entry salary average being around $76,000.”

MUSC is trying to make its genetic counseling program convenient for students with jobs and/or families, so part of it will be online. “We hope that will appeal to nontraditional learners and minimize the amount of time that people would actually have to be here in Charleston or here on campus. But there will be some periods where they have to come in for hands-on training,” Foil said.

“The coursework is one of the major program components, but there are also clinical rotations and a thesis project. The clinical rotations will, for the most part, be on-site at MUSC. We'll also enlist the help of the Greenwood Genetics Center and some other local or regional genetics groups. Some students may have select rotation opportunities virtually or in a location of their choice. Clinical rotations, or the real-world clinical experience under supervision, will begin in the summer of the first year of this two-year, five-semester program.”

Pending accreditation, the first group of students will start in fall 2023 and graduate in spring 2025. Foil said MUSC’s decision to create the program now shows initiative and foresight. “We need to develop the genetics and genomics workforce, both presently and downstream, in order to be cutting edge and offer state-of-the-art personalized care to our communities going forward.”

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