The accelerated discovery of disease and susceptibility genes made possible by the sequencing of the human genome has brought new and exciting challenges to the field of genetic counseling. The traditional emphasis of genetic counseling has been on providing information coupled with supportive counseling, primarily for people facing reproductive decisions. The field has broadened dramatically to address a multiplicity of emerging needs, ranging from clients seeking disease susceptibility testing to those wanting to know if a therapeutic treatment option is right for them. Therefore, genetic counselors must not only convey to these individuals and their families information about risks but also the consequences of testing and the potential for therapeutic intervention. These choices are laden with uncertainty and raise difficult ethical, legal and social issues.
Genetic information can have profound psychological meaning for clients, particularly for members of families affected by a genetic condition or risk. Decisions about whether to use genetic tests require that clients evaluate scientific information in the context of their personal values and beliefs. Genetic counselors are trained to facilitate decision-making to promote informed choices. When there is no genetic test or therapeutic option to offer, genetic counselors help family members to adapt to the condition or risk, often under conditions of uncertainty.
As the scope of genetic counseling expands and evolves, patient, professional, and community education will be imperative. Increasingly, primary care practitioners are providing aspects of genetic counseling and other genetic services, resulting in a need to educate nurses, social workers and physicians. Genetic counselors play a key role in educating these providers and developing standards of practice. Trained genetic counselors also provide a means for health professionals and patients to communicate with policy makers, the media and the public about new and emerging genetic technologies and services.
Drawing on resources from two outstanding research institutions, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have collaborated to develop a unique genetic counseling graduate program that addresses the growing need for genetic counseling services. The JHU/NHGRI Genetic Counseling Program (GCTP) was established in 1996. Its goals are to prepare graduates to:
The GCTP distinguishes itself in offering extensive interactive coursework to support completion of high quality, publishable thesis studies. Since its inception, the GCTP has produced a cadre of genetic counselors who broaden the scope of genetic counseling by contributing to a growing research literature that critically examines a variety of aspects of the profession and shapes future directions in the field.
Additionally, program faculty provide students with one-on-one supervision for an hour each week throughout their graduate studies. These sessions offer students feedback based on audiotaped sessions with clients and on interventions consistent with development of counseling expertise.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health provides a strong academic home for the GCTP, while NHGRI provides funding, instruction and leadership. This collaborative program, which represents the first allocation of federal funds to support graduate education in genetic counseling, is regarded as an important effort to address new challenges resulting from genomics research.
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Last Updated: August 14, 2014