Genetic Counselors In Demand, But Diversity Lags : Shots


Altovise Ewing, who has a doctorate in human genetics and counseling, now works as a genetic counselor and researcher at 23andMe, one of many largest direct-to-consumer genetic testing firms, based mostly in Mountain View, Calif.

Karen Santos for NPR


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Karen Santos for NPR

Altovise Ewing was a senior at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., when she first realized what a genetic counselor was. Although she had a powerful curiosity in analysis, she suspected working in a lab wasn’t for her — not sufficient social interplay.

Then, when a genetic counselor got here to her class as a visitor lecturer, Ewing had what she recollects as a “lightbulb moment.” Genetic counseling, she realized, would permit her to be immersed within the science but in addition work together with sufferers. And possibly, she thought, she’d be capable of assist deal with racial well being disparities, too.

That was 15 years in the past. Ewing, who went on to earn a doctorate in Genetics and Human Genetics/Genetic Counseling from Howard University, now works as a genetic counselor for 23andMe, one of many largest direct-to-consumer genetic testing firms. As a black girl, Ewing can also be a rarity in her occupation.

Genetic counselors work with sufferers to determine when genetic testing is suitable, interpret any check outcomes and counsel sufferers on the methods hereditary ailments may influence them or their households. According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the variety of genetic counselors is anticipated to develop by 29% between 2016 and 2026, in contrast with 7% common development fee for all occupations.

23andMe’s Ewing says the dearth of ethnic range amongst genetic counselors within the U.S. reduces some folks’s willingness to take part in scientific trials, “because they’re not able to connect with the counselor or the scientist involved in the research initiative.”

Karen Santos for NPR


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Karen Santos for NPR

However, regardless of the sphere’s speedy development, the variety of African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans working as genetic counselors has remained low.

As genetics’ function in medication expands, range amongst suppliers is essential, say folks working within the subject. “It is well documented that people want medical services from people who look like them, and genetic counseling is not an exception,” says Barbara Harrison, an assistant professor and genetic counselor at Howard University.

Ana Sarmiento, who wrote her grasp’s thesis on the significance of range amongst genetic counselors, has seen this firsthand.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the look of relief on a Spanish-speaking patient’s face when they realize they can communicate with me,” says Sarmiento, a current graduate of Brandeis University’s genetic counseling program. “It’s what keeps me passionate about being a genetic counselor.”

Ethnic and gender range amongst suppliers may enhance the depth and scope of knowledge sufferers are prepared to share within the scientific settings — data that is vital to their well being.

“In my opinion,” says Erica Price, who simply obtained her grasp’s in genetic counseling from Arcadia University, “no one fights for the black community the way other black people do. I encounter a lot of other African Americans who don’t know what genetic counseling is. But when they find out that I’m a genetic counselor, they will give me their entire family medical history.”

Bryana Rivers, who’s African American, lately graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s genetic counseling program, and wrote final 12 months about her expertise with a black mom whose two kids had undergone in depth genetic testing to attempt to decide the reason for their developmental delays.

Having a agency prognosis, the mom defined to Rivers, might assist the kids get entry to the sources they wanted in class. The mother needed to know if the genetic variant that had been recognized in her kids — one which geneticists had determined was a “variant of unknown significance” — had been noticed in different black households.

That query, which she hadn’t introduced up in earlier discussions with well being suppliers who weren’t African American, led to a broader, candid dialogue of what these unknown variants imply and do not imply, and why they’re extra frequent amongst members of understudied minorities.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is for patients to feel comfortable, to feel heard, and to know that they will not be ignored or discriminated against by their providers based on the color of their skin,” Rivers wrote in her weblog submit.

“I don’t want to suggest that a genetic counselor who wasn’t black wouldn’t have listened to her, but there are factors outside of what we do and say that can have an impact on our patients. Just the fact that she was able to lower her guard a bit because we share the same racial background as her speaks volumes.”

In an interview Rivers additionally recounted a current session performed by a white feminine genetic counselor that Rivers was shadowing that day. The affected person, who was a black girl, addressed all of her solutions to Rivers, though Rivers’ official function was to merely observe the appointment.

“I do feel a responsibility as a black provider to look out for my black patients and make sure they are receiving the appropriate care,” Rivers says. “Not everyone is willing to go that extra mile, and they may be more dismissive of the concerns of black patients and may not actually hear them.”

Ewing, who additionally conducts analysis, provides that the dearth of range amongst genetic counselors has had a damaging influence on analysis.

“The lack of diversity has an effect on the willingness of minorities to pursue clinical trials, because they’re not able to connect with the counselor or the scientist involved in the research initiative,” she explains. “We are now in the era of precision and personalized medicine and we need people who are comfortable talking about genetic and genomic information with people from all walks of life, so that we’re reaching all demographics.”

Since 1992, the National Society of Genetic Counselors, the biggest skilled group for genetic counselors within the United States, has performed an annual survey on the demographics of its members. Between 1992 and 2006, non-Hispanic white genetic counselors made up 91 to 94.2% of the NSGC’s membership.

In 2019, 90% of survey respondents recognized as Caucasian, whereas just one% of respondents recognized as Black or African-American. Just over 2% of respondents recognized as Hispanic, zero.four% recognized as American Indian or Alaskan Native.

Some genetic counselors cite a lack of information amongst underrepresented minorities of genetic counseling as a occupation as a significant barrier to range within the subject. Rivers says she had little publicity to genetic counseling as a future profession path whereas enrolled as a biology main on the University of Maryland.

“My university stressed medical school, nursing school, or a Ph.D. in the biological sciences,” Rivers recollects. “I only had one professor in four years bring up genetic counseling.”

Samiento concurs. “You don’t have 6-year-olds running around saying ‘I want to be a genetic counselor’ — because it’s not a high visibility profession,” she says. “There are also very few minority professionals in the training programs and it takes a brave minority to look at the sea of white female faces and say ‘yes I can fit in here.’ “

“Genetic counseling is still a relatively new profession and there hasn’t been enough time and exposure for people to view [the field] the way they view other medical professions,” says Price. “People have asked me why I would pursue genetic counseling when I could be a physician assistant or a nurse or go to medical school.”

After Price’s acceptance to graduate college, one in all her undergraduate professors questioned her chosen profession path. “She said to me, ‘You’re a black woman in the sciences. We could have gotten you into a Ph.D. program or something where you’re making more money.’ “

As part of its strategic plan for the years 2019-2021, the NSGC has recognized range and inclusion as one in all its 4 areas of strategic focus. Specific plans embrace growing mechanisms to focus on genetic counseling as a profession in hard-to-reach communities by the top of the 12 months. Erica Ramos, who’s the instant previous president of the NSGC and serves because the board liaison to the duty pressure, says she is optimistic that the numbers of underrepresented minorities within the subject will enhance.

“People in the profession have realized that we have blinders on,” she says. “But as an organization, the NSGC has been asking questions about how we can improve on diversity and be supportive of existing minority genetic counselors. We had 100 people apply to serve on the task force.”

Numerous genetic counselors from various backgrounds have additionally come collectively to type their very own assist and advocacy networks. In November 2018, the Minority Genetic Professionals Network was fashioned to supply a discussion board for genetic counselors from various backgrounds to attach with each other.

Erika Stallings is an lawyer and freelance author based mostly in New York City. Her work focuses on well being care disparities, with a concentrate on breast most cancers and genetics. Find her on Twitter: @quidditch424.



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