Hybrid program in genetic counseling cultivates tomorrow's experts

Brightly colored DNA electrophoresis bands aligned in columns

New Master of Science program aligns with MUSC efforts in clinical genetics, population genomic research and expanding the genetic workforce

by Shawn Oberrath

As precision medicine expands and genetic diagnosis and treatment breakthroughs continue to emerge, genetic counselors will play increasingly vital roles across all health care disciplines.

To meet the demand for more genetic counselors, the Medical University of South Carolina recently launched a hybrid program to grant a Master of Science degree in genetic counseling to successful graduates. The first class convened with 14 students in the fall of 2023. Over five semesters, these students will complete coursework, clinical rotations and thesis research before graduating with the new degree.

Kimberly Foil, M.S., serves as program director and was instrumental in getting the program off the ground. “This was really needed at MUSC and aligns perfectly with the vision to provide outstanding clinical care, research and education,” she said. “We are expanding our workforce and want to train even more genetic counselors to benefit MUSC as well as the whole state.”

Genetic counselors are health professionals who look at the influence of genetics on human disease across all body systems. They assist with accurate testing and diagnosis and help patients and families understand their risk of disease, the implications of a diagnosis, and how to live the best life possible given this knowledge.

Depending on their role, genetic counselors might help patients interpret test results, take additional steps like screening, or gain support through a group specific to their disease or diagnosis. They might also play roles in advocacy, research or industry.

While creating the new master’s degree program, Foil and assistant program director Libby Malphrus, M.S., leaned on the rich genetic infrastructure already present at MUSC.

“We are so fortunate to have a wide field of expertise in genetics at MUSC,” said Malphrus. “We have genetic counselors working in the more traditional roles, like cancer, prenatal and pediatrics, but we also have experts in neurology and cardiology, the population genomic research of In Our DNA SC, and other genetic services.”

She also pointed out that there are currently over 100,000 genetic tests on the market, offering an overwhelming array of choices for clinicians. Having genetic counselors as a resource is extremely valuable for providers deciding which tests are appropriate for individual patients, especially across newer precision medicine fields like ophthalmology, immunology or renal disease that may not have widely integrated counselors.

Foil added that as breakthroughs increase rapidly, all health care providers will need higher levels of genetic competence, and genetic counselors are poised to fill that gap.

The new program will not only help fill the growing demand for genetic professionals but also increase accessibility to genetic counseling services as more experts become available.

For example, MUSC recently hired more cancer genetic counselors, which decreased the wait time for an appointment from eight weeks to less than one. “That's an incredible result,” said Malphrus. “There are many hospital systems across the country where you may wait a year to see a provider in genetics.”

To nurture the training and growth of more counselors across all disciplines, MUSC’s program is a hybrid training model where students can complete their first-year coursework remotely and asynchronously. This is the first such program in the country provided by an academic medical center, and it has worked well for the first student cohort.

Student ambassador Maria Striebich, who is part of the first group and is taking the first year of coursework remotely from another state, said she is excited about the emphasis on genetics at MUSC and has appreciated being off to a good start.

“While starting a new online program like this one, I honestly expected a few bumps in the road, but everything went smoothly, and you could see the work that the professors put in to get the program up and running,” she said. “It really didn’t feel like this was the program's first year.”

The program shifts to a clinical rotation model during semesters three to five, so students will be required to be on-site for their assigned rotations. About half of the students are performing their first year of coursework remotely, and a few have set up clinical rotations outside South Carolina. But most will gain their clinical experience through MUSC or a partnership with the Greenwood Genetic Center, which has four locations in South Carolina.

Before they begin rotations, students practice their skills by using the MUSC Center for Clinical Assessment, Teaching & Simulation, another unique feature of the program. During their second semester, they interact with highly trained actors performing roles as simulated patients to run through common counseling scenarios. These sessions feel authentic, allowing students to gain confidence before going live with real patients. The simulations also give them experience with telemedicine, which is increasingly being used as a tool to make genetic counseling accessible to everyone.

While the first group of students has yet to complete their journey, Foil believes that they are preparing for a bright future. “Employers will be lucky to hire any one of our genetic counseling students,” she said. “They are all terrific, motivated people who make my job rewarding.”

The program is recruiting its second cohort now, and MUSC hopes to accept and train more students over time to meet the escalating nationwide need for excellent genetic counselors.