Every genetic case is different. Every client is different, even people within the same family experience the same genetic conditions differently. Even with these differences, the process for genetic counselors nationwide is somewhat similar. To fully grasp a day in the life of a genetic counselor, one must understand the process we typically follow.
A Day in the Life of a Genetic Counselor
As genetic counselors, we become aware of the referral; whether we receive a request from a doctor to work with a patient or the patient may contact us directly. We gather information from the patient about their health and wellbeing and from there, we usually draw out their family tree. After we draw out the family tree, we begin to gather medical information pertinent to the case from other sources, such as hospital records or pathology results.
Now that we have more information on the patient, we meet and arrange the genetic test. This includes a discussion on what to expect, how long it will take for results, payment options, etc. After analyzing the sample, we review the results of the genetic test with the patient, explore what these results mean for them, and how it will potentially impact their future.
Then, Along Comes a Global Pandemic
SARS-Cov-2, a very infectious and somewhat harmful virus that is easily transmitted between people. This changes everything for everyone – including genetic counselors.
Citizens in many countries around the world are urged by their governments to stay at home to reduce the burden of this new disease. Schools are shut and children are homeschooled. Many workplaces are closed, so now employees are forced to work from home. Suddenly genetic counselors must reevaluate how we they do what they usually do at work, from home.
Genetic counseling is a caring profession. Empathy is built from in person interactions. Although some genetic counseling had occurred remotely via telehealth or phone appointments, the convention for certain referrals was to do them in person.
Probably everyone reading this is lucky enough to have access to internet, a computer at home to work from, and an area at home in which to work. Technology has been our savior; we connect with teammates via instant messaging, we communicate with clients and referring clinicians via phone and video conferencing. Paper is almost obsolete with correspondence and results easily available and accessible in digital form.
Challenges with Working Remote
There are some challenges we have faced during this pandemic that not even fast internet can solve. For example, sometimes a physician needs to examine a patient in person. For genetic testing to take place, the lab needs to test a biological sample from a person.
The question became: Do we still send our patients out to have blood taken at their local pathology collection center or, can we perform the same test on a cheek swab or saliva sample which can be obtained at home?
The very act of taking time to go to a genetic counseling appointment has often becomes replaced with phone calls, which can be not as effective as an in-person consultation. Some additional challenges include taking calls with children or with patients who take calls while multi-tasking, which creates background noise (e.g. children playing, sitting in traffic, grocery shopping, etc.).
How BG Genetic Counselors are Combatting Challenges
At Baylor Genetics, we have five laboratory genetic counselors. Unlike clinical genetic counselors, laboratory genetic counselors do not work with patients directly. We work with the healthcare providers who order our tests.
Fortunately, we are in a position that allows us to transition to totally working remotely. We have been, and continue to be, available for our clients each day during office hours.
Whether I call a physician to discuss a case from my home or my office at work, this interaction has not changed too much. Whether a result is faxed, and I read it printed on paper from my printer at work or on the screen on my laptop at home does not really change the relevance of this result. The difference now is our interaction as genetic counselors with our clients who we used to see in person.
As genetic counselors, we are highly trained professionals. In this new era, we can still obtain our professional development requirements digitally. We have learned to adapt to networking and spending time with our peers and colleagues remotely. We have the nous to evolve and work well with a new set of challenges.
But, can we still excel in the “touchy – feely” component of the genetic counseling relationship without the “touchy”? I believe we can.