The demand for genetic counselors is steadily increasing, and institutions all over the country are turning out roughly 550 graduates a year to address the 18% expected growth from 2021-2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One of the programs trying to meet this demand is the genetic counseling program here at Boise State, with a higher than average number of graduates at 12 students per year.
Genetic counseling combines the scientific study of genetics with counseling skills, so a patient can have both an understanding of their genetic conditions, and a medical team with a plan for managing their conditions and what it means for them. Genetic counseling isn’t limited to the individual either, so if a diagnosis is made the patient can work with their counselor to talk about the implications of different conditions with their family. Having a genetic counselor can help someone find out if they have conditions such as hereditary cancer syndromes, blood disorders, chromosome abnormalities, or psychiatric and neurological conditions.
Jennifer Eichmeyer, program director for Boise State’s genetic counseling program, is a genetic counselor herself – but she didn’t start there. Eichmeyer initially intended to go to medical school, planning to become a pediatrician. However, after taking part in an internship in high school, she realized that it wasn’t the kind of lifestyle she wanted. One of her teachers introduced her to genetic counseling, which at that time was still fairly new. Eichmeyer soon found that it was perfect for her, and has worked in it for over 20 years.
“Somebody who’s attracted to be in health care is usually somebody who’s interested in science and helping people, and genetic counseling is definitely that,” Eichmeyer said, “You can impact siblings, children, parents, distant relatives, and I really liked that about the profession.”
Unlike the other programs in the US, Boise State’s genetic counseling program is fully online. Program completion takes five full-time semesters, so students graduate in only two years with coursework in the summer in between their first and second years. Another unique part of the Boise State program, is the focus on being practical and application based in order to support the genetic counseling community. The capstone projects are able to address projects and needs that contribute back to the practicing genetic counselors with busy clinic demands. Examples of these include educational videos explaining genetic counseling, about specific disease topics, and videos in other languages to educate people who don’t speak English but are still interested in the topic.
The program recently received full program accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling, but it wasn’t an easy task. Eichmeyer initially proposed this program before COVID-19, and she encountered quite a bit of skepticism that it could be effectively taught completely online, mostly around the social aspects of learning and interaction. There were many concerns that it would be hard to develop relationships within the cohorts or with the faculty, and that overall communication would weaken.
When COVID hit, everyone was forced into online learning or work for a short amount of time, and Eichmeyer believes that it helped people to see how online learning is possible and how it can work. However, she also believes that there’s a difference between classes and programs that are designed to be online, and those that were suddenly required to do so. Eichmeyer says there’s a different type of effort and time put into it, and online classes are set up in a particular way so they can be as effective as possible online.
Eichmeyer says that “Even though we didn’t have anyone on the accreditation team who had an online educational background, I think there was maybe a little more open mindedness to how it could work post COVID.”
Susie Seltzer, the administrative assistant for the program, also has high praise for the online aspect of Boise State’s program. Before when people were interested in a genetic counseling degree, they would have to move to a city where they could attend college in-person. But many people were unable to move away or couldn’t afford to do so, and that eliminated a lot of people who weren’t able to consider the genetic counseling profession. Seltzer says that having this program has opened the opportunity to people from rural areas or underprivileged communities, and allowed people to do it when they couldn’t before.
Like most health care degrees, the genetic counseling program requires students to participate in some sort of clinical internship. While each degree is different in what kind and how it’s managed, having hands-on learning helps students understand things better and get a feel for how it would work outside of the classroom. The genetic counseling program matches students to a hospital after a meeting with the Fieldwork Coordinator in their first semester. The process uses information such as the student’s residency, preferences, non-academic obligations, professional interests, and schedule availability to find the best possible fit for each student. The student then works as an intern with a professional genetic counselor to provide select services under supervision. Once COVID hit, all hospitals closed down for all students, and the program needed to find an alternative so students would still get that experience.
One way the program solved this issue was with standardized patients – someone who plays a specific role and has unique ways they need to act in specific situations to replicate an actual patient. This was already in use before the shutdown, and was expanded later on to accommodate to COVID and since students responded to it very well. The program partnered with some telegenetics sites to conduct those clinical rotations through telehealth, as well as some industries that would allow students to do projects in addition to clinical rotations.
The feedback from alumni has been very positive, Eichmeyer says. She’s heard that the graduate students are much more capable of handling psychosocial issues and that students are confident and able to conduct advanced counseling. Seltzer adds that many students have found that they receive job offers before they graduate – to the program, they see that as recognition for how they’re properly training students for joining the world of genetic counseling after graduation.