As the use of genetic testing to diagnose disease increases, so does the demand for counselors trained to interpret results and guide patients facing complex genetic disorders. To meet the increasing need, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is introducing a new master’s of science degree in genetic counseling. Housed within the Department of Human Genetics, the two-year program aims to broaden underserved populations’ access to genomic medicine in Los Angeles, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the nation. A close alignment with the UCLA Institute for Precision Health and Institute for Society and Genetics will enhance cross-disciplinary training for students in the program.
“Training the next generation of practitioners in this new era of precision health is a critical component of our educational mission,” says Kelsey C. Martin, MD, PhD, dean of the Geffen School of Medicine. “As a leading academic medical center and university, UCLA offers a unique environment for collaboration that prepares students to become innovators in genetic counseling research and clinical medicine.”
Genetic counselors play a vital role on health care teams, providing risk assessment, education and support to individuals and families at risk for — or diagnosed with — a wide range of inherited diseases. They also interpret genetic test results, provide counseling and serve as patient advocates during the diagnosis and treatment process. They are “an important part of the precision health ecosystem and play a vital role in the delivery of patient-centered care,” says Clara Lajonchere, PhD, deputy director of the UCLA Institute for Precision Health.
“When we’re talking about translational medicine, this is a beautiful extension from the basic to the clinical, which is an important part of our department’s mission,” says Leonid Kruglyak, PhD, chair of human genetics.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment of genetic counselors to grow 27 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. U.S. News & World Report ranks genetic counseling as No. 11 of the top health care support jobs.
According to the American Board of Genetic Counseling, 5,000 genetic counselors are certified in North America. Assuming one counselor per 100,000 people, the demand for genetic counselors in patient care is estimated to exceed supply until 2024. California and 23 other states offer licensure for genetic counselors.
The program aims to train a cadre of counselors that reflects California’s diversity. “As a microcosm of the world, Los Angeles offers a rare setting for advancing what we know about genetic diseases,” says Daniel Geschwind, MD (RES ’95, FEL ’97), PhD, associate vice chancellor for precision health. “Diversity is critical to understanding genetic variations among all populations in order to accurately deliver targeted treatments.”
“I recently gave a diagnosis to a young man who had been our patient for 17 years. Seventeen years with no diagnosis!” says genetic counselor Naghmeh Dorrani, associate program director. “There’s currently no treatment for his condition, but the hope is that there will be. Once you have a name, that’s where things start.”
— Elaine Schmidt