Master’s Degree in Genetic Counseling To Enroll First Students in 2019

A new master’s program in genetic counseling at VP&S will begin enrolling students in the fall of 2019. The two-year program will educate 12 students in clinical genetics, counseling, communication, genomic medicine, and precision medicine.

Genetic counselors help patients and their families understand how genes shape their health and provide personalized guidance in making medical and family decisions. With the rapid growth of genetic tests and an American public eager to use them, demand is high for genetic counselors. A search of the Genetic Testing Registry of the NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information yields thousands of tests ranging from cancer to heart disease to neurological conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment of genetic counselors is projected to grow 29 percent by 2026.

“The workforce opportunities for genetic counselors have expanded greatly, especially in the last decade,” says Amanda Bergner, MS, a certified genetic counselor, the program’s director, and associate professor of genetic counseling (in genetics & development) at VP&S. “In the past, genetic counselors mainly worked with patients in clinical care settings. Now, in addition to patient-facing work, genetic counselors are employed within commercial diagnostic labs, private companies, health insurance companies, and advocacy groups.”

As workforce opportunities expand, genetic counselors are in short supply across the United States. The nation has 4,600 board-certified genetic counselors, not nearly enough to meet existing demand. The shortage is especially acute in New York, where the Albany metropolitan area, in particular, has one of the lowest counselor-to-resident ratios in the country. New programs are starting to increase the supply, but a workforce study commissioned by the Genetic Counselor Workforce Working Group calculated that the supply of genetic counselors will not match demand until sometime between 2024 and 2030.

Students in the new VP&S program will be taught by genetic counselors, researchers, and physicians working at the medical center. “We’re capitalizing on the experience and knowledge of genetic counselors here at Columbia,” says Ms. Bergner, who notes that counselors are employed in multiple VP&S departments as well as the Institute for Genomic Medicine. “Our genetic counselors have nearly 200 years of collective experience to bring to our students.”

Columbia’s program will differ from others by immersing students more deeply in precision medicine and the social constructs that inform health disparities. For half of their second year, students will intern at the Institute for Genomic Medicine and have exposure to the All of Us research program, which seeks to create a health database with genomic information from at least 1 million people.

Students in the program will start patient care interactions in their first year in the Vagelos Education Center, where they will do training exercises on medical cases with standardized patient-actors in the building’s simulation center. They also will complete clinical internships at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

These experiences will teach students counseling strategies and communication skills that support patient empowerment. “Genetic counselors are being asked to be more proficient at promoting health and facilitating clients making good choices for themselves and their families in the midst of a rapidly increasing amount of information,” says Ms. Bergner. “We have designed the Columbia curriculum to give students those skills."