Genetic Counseling Department: At Home in the State House

By schwartzsa | April 24, 2012

You’ve probably passed the blue residential building on Limekiln Pike with the sign that says “Genetic Counseling House” and thought nothing of it. But this little abode houses the second largest accredited Genetic Counseling program—24 students—in North America. And the department recently took care of business in the PA State House.

The Pennsylvania Senate and House passed the genetic counseling licensure bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett, in December 2011. Kathy Valverde, Director of the M.S. in Genetic Counseling and Dr. Laura Conway, Assistant Professor, spoke before the PA House and were instrumental in getting the bills passed. The bills were six years in the making, but Valverde and Conway explain that it’s been a much longer process.

“In 1984, when I walked into Sarah Lawrence College, one of the first things the program director talked about is how genetic counseling is never going to get anywhere unless we have licensure,” says Valverde. “So this has been something that the field of genetic counseling has wanted for a very long time.”

Genetic counselors are healthcare professionals who have training in medical genetics and counseling. They are part of a healthcare team providing medical information and support to families who have genetic conditions or who are at risk to develop genetic disorders. Genetic counselors research the genetic condition present in a family; interpret information about the disorder; analyze inheritance patterns; provide recurrence risk information and review available options with both the family and their health care providers.

“[Pennsylvania] is one of 14 states that offer a master’s degree in Genetic Counseling,” says Valverde. “What’s important about Pennsylvania is that between our program at Arcadia and the program in Pittsburgh, we graduate approximately 10 percent of genetic counseling graduates every year. Also, Pennsylvania has the third largest number of genetic counselors.”

But just because PA has the largest number of educated genetic counselors doesn’t mean that treatment is always administered well. Until December 2011, anyone could call themselves a genetic counselor.

“Title protection limits individuals from calling themselves genetic counselors unless they meet the standards and qualifications established by licensure,” says Conway. “The general public is not aware of the minimal standards for genetic counselors. State regulation of this profession will ensure that a genetic counselor is adequately trained and competent to provide genetic counseling.”

“We’re hoping that when our state went to licensure, it would be useful to other states,” adds Valverde. “Subsequently, we’ve just had a phone call from New Hampshire asking for our materials and wanting to know how we did things. So we’re all trying to help each other. The goal is that all 50 states will have licensure.”

Arcadia’s Genetic Counseling program was established in 1995. It has graduated more than 150 students and is the second largest program in the country. Accepting 12 students annually, Arcadia’s Genetic Counseling program provides personal attention and access to clinical opportunities at some of the nation’s premier healthcare facilities.