August 4, 2023

Vanderbilt, Penn Medicine partner to create and offer continuing education programs for genetic counselors

Upon receiving a $9.7 million grant from The Warren Alpert Foundation (WAF), the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn Medicine) has partnered with Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) and three other institutions to design and provide continuing education programs for genetic counselors.

This will be the first of its kind as there are currently no formal training programs for continuing education in the field of genetic counseling.

The Vanderbilt University board of directors approved the Masters of Genetic Counseling (MGC) degree program in 2017. The first class was accepted in 2019 under a “new program” accreditation and has graduated 19 students with a first-time board pass rate of 91%. In November 2022, the program received full accreditation from the Accreditation Council for Genetic Counseling for six years, which is the maximum eligibility.

Martha Dudek, MS, CGC

According to Martha Dudek, MS, CGC, program director for the VUSM Master of Genetic Counseling degree program, the WAF-Career Ladder Education Program for Genetic Counseling (CLEP-GC) allows VUMC to continue to build and support genetic counseling services in Tennessee as a leader in personalized medicine and clinical genetics.

“Having the first genetic counseling program in the state of Tennessee has allowed us to add six new faculty at VUMC and expand the clinical, teaching and research contributions of our faculty,” she said. “This growth positioned us well to collaborate with Penn Medicine through the WAF grant.”

In addition to research, genetic counselors interpret genomic data and explain its implications to patients. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the genetic counseling field is poised for significant growth over the next decade. Genetic counselors at VUMC have previously been supported by grant funding to provide clinical care or execute research goals of collaborators. This is the first grant that specifically invests in genetic counselors’ research skills and initiatives.

“Genetic counselors are trained as communicators and experts in clinical genetics. These key skills allow them to integrate well into translational research teams,” Dudek said “This grant will provide protected time and resources for genetic counselors at VUMC to expand their research training and have mentorship from the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute faculty.”

For five years, two genetic counselors from each institution will receive salary support to advance research. Ten genetic counselors will take online classes annually and advance their research skills through mentorship. Together, the five institutions in this collaboration, which includes Baylor, Northwestern and the University of Washington, will create five online continuing education unit (CEU) courses. Each one-credit CEU course will offer 10 hours of instruction, lectures, activities and assessments on topics across genomics and personalized medicine.

Kelly Taylor, MS, LCGC, CCRP

In the first year of funding, Dudek and Kelly Taylor, MS, LCGC, CCRP, senior associate in Medicine, will work with genetic counselors at the partnering institutions to develop online educational modules.

“The opportunity for VUMC genetic counselors to have protected time to develop their research skills and conduct genetic counseling research is very exciting,” Taylor said. “Genetic counselors play a key role in the translation of genomic medicine to clinical practice and this grant will allow VUMC genetic counselors time to do research on the best ways to do this. This research will ultimately lead to advancements in clinical care for patients. This grant will also benefit the VU Genetic Counseling Program. Training students to conduct genetic counseling research is an essential aspect of the program. Genetic counselors conducting research as a result of this grant will be able to mentor our students and will be a great asset.”

Dudek and Taylor have already worked with the consortium to identify two genetic counseling faculty at VUMC for a one-year intensive research training program with two genetic counselors from the other four institutions.

Jill Slamon, MAT, MS, LCGC, senior associate in Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Kelsey Schultz Hazelberg, assistant in Obstetrics and Gynecology, were accepted into the program for year one.

“Genetic Counselors are the front-line providers for genetic information, but the genetic medicine space is one of the most dynamic parts of medicine — both expanding rapidly in terms of the numbers of people getting genetic testing and also bringing in more different pieces of genetics for delivery,” said Nancy Cox, PhD, director of the division of Genetic Medicine and co-principal investigator. “This is a terrific opportunity to provide Genetic Counselors with enrichment opportunities including research that provides insight into future applications for genetic counseling, as well as actual development and application of recent discoveries for delivery to patients.”