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Genetic Counseling Program Begins

September 11, 2019
Genetic Counseling Class of 2021
There are 20 students in the inaugural class of the MGH Institute's Master of Science in Genetic Counseling program, which began in September 2019.

Master's program will educate practitioners who can accurately interpret results and provide guidance to people.

The need for trained genetic counselors has increased significantly in recent years—and not just because DNA home test kits that reveal a person’s ancestry and traits, like 23andMe, have become all the rage.

Advances in technology now provide a better understanding of how genes, the pieces of DNA that carry the information containing a person’s traits, contribute to diseases and disorders. For example, a pregnant couple learns that they are both carriers of a disorder and need to understand the possibilities of their child inheriting that condition. Or, a child is born with a rare heart defect and the family is confused about the next steps and what to anticipate for their child. Or, a mother develops breast cancer at a young age and wants to know the risk factors for her children.

Genetic counselors, says Maureen Flynn, associate professor and director of the MGH Institute’s new Master of Science in Genetic Counseling program, can provide a measure of relief, empowerment, and/or a better understanding of possible medical ramifications that can help people make informed decisions.

“There are not enough genetic counselors to provide guidance and information before a test is pursued and to interpret the results,” explains Flynn, who has been a clinical genetic counselor for 15 years, most recently at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Cancer Risk Assessment. “Tests may reveal implications for an entire family, so ensuring that patients receive accurate information is extremely important.”

The National Society of Genetic Counselors reports that there were about 4,800 certified genetic counselors in the United States as of January 2019—a 600 percent growth since 1993. Within a decade, the group predicts, that number will reach 9,000. The MGH Institute’s initial class in the 21-month program, which starts this fall, will have 20 students—more than double the number most other programs traditionally enroll.

The program is intended to help fulfill a vision shared by Mass General and the IHP: to help shape the future of genetic counseling education. And thanks to the IHP’s connection with its fellow Partners HealthCare affiliates, students will have unparalleled access to expert clinicians and researchers—many of whom are on the faculty—in within genetics clinics and genomics research labs.

“Helping a person navigate complex medical information and providing support is truly rewarding, and I look forward to sharing that with our students,” says Jessica Waxler, an assistant professor of genetic counseling who also works with both pediatric and adult patients in the medical genetics and metabolism division at Mass General. She is among several faculty with experience working at locations that also include Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Partners Laboratory for Molecular Medicine, and Boston Children’s Hospital.

Students will learn from actors, or trained standardized patients, far more frequently than at other programs, Flynn says, and will use the state-of-the-art technology at the Sanders IMPACT Practice Center. Plus, like every other direct-entry degree program at the Institute, interprofessional education will be a key component of students’ education.

“In addition to our partnerships, faculty, and simulation center, the Institute’s focus on interprofessional education, which is woven into every aspect of the student experience, is a true strength,” Flynn notes. “We are innovatively preparing students for the genetic counseling practice of the future.”

- By Lory Hough