Within the past 24 hours, genetic testing has been a hot topic in the news. The genetic testing company, 23andMe just received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin selling at-home DNA-testing kits. Consumers can buy these kits without a prescription to detect their risk for BRCA breast cancer genes.
The recent news has been stirring a conversation about the role of genetic counselors and whether people can cope with this type of information without professionals there to help.
“Knowledge of future disease risk through genetic testing must be managed within a context of family relationships, cultural beliefs, resources, and the wider healthcare and societal systems,” says Dr. Kenneth Covelman, Ph.D., Chair of the Department of Couple and Family Therapy at Jefferson College of Health Professions at Thomas Jefferson University.
In fact, Dr. Covelman teaches a course on this very subject. Back in 2016, when Dr. Gerald Grunwald, Dean of the Jefferson College of Biomedical Sciences, and other faculty members were developing the new master’s program in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling, the group asked Dr. Covelman if he could develop a course focusing on Psychological Issues in Genetic Counseling.
“We all agreed that there was a natural fit between genetic counseling and couple and medical family therapy, as both focus on the needs of the family. Therefore, it makes tremendous pedagogic sense to teach a course about emotional issues in genetic counseling from a family systems theory perspective, rather than from the traditional individual perspective,” says Dr. Covelman.
The course sets itself apart from counseling courses in other genetic counseling programs as family therapists teaching an entire course in a genetic counseling program is an uncommon and unique practice.
“Genetic counseling does not take place in a vacuum and to be effective must address the fact that the information being addressed will have major ramifications for individuals and their loved ones. The introduction of genetic information into the life of a family often induces a crisis for the family and genetic counselors must be aware of how this crisis can play out in order to truly be helpful to their patients,” says Dr. Covelman.
The course curriculum includes a mix of educational practices including lectures, video tape analysis of family counseling sessions and role plays.
“The basic concepts of family systems thinking and counseling practice are taught and applied within a family life-span approach. Specific lifecycle stages as they relate to the client’s coping and meaning making process, including: adolescence, pregnancy and childbirth, parenthood, caretaking, aging, and older adulthood are addressed,” explains Dr. Covelman.
As the amount of genetic information that individuals have access to continues to increase, Dr. Covelman points out that “it is imperative to understand that genetic issues by their very nature are family based and reverberate through the family.”
“It requires new ways of understanding and making sense of this information for families as they grapple with the issues around whether or not to be tested for genetic disorders, or to find out if they are carriers of genetic disorders, or with whom to share this information or the myriad of other decisions and relational and emotional issues raised in coping with genetic disease,” says Dr. Covelman.
The program started in September 2017 and includes students with diverse educational, clinical professional and research-related experiences.