Genetic counselors forming state association in Macon

hduncan@macon.comApril 18, 2013 

Genetic counselors from across the state are converging on Macon for their first-ever conference Friday as they seek to create a statewide professional association for their emerging field.

Genetic counselors use personal and family medical histories to help patients decide if they need genetic testing, explained Christine Delaney, one of the conference organizers and the only certified genetic counselor in Macon. If it turns out that someone has a genetic tendency toward certain cancers, heart problems or other inherited conditions, their doctors can test earlier and more often for those health problems.

In some cases, doctors might also make different treatment recommendations, such as the type of chemotherapy used, based on the patient’s genes.

“Overall, we’re finding more and more conditions have a genetic basis we can identify based on patterns in family members,” said Delaney, who works for The Medical Center of Central Georgia, where the conference will be held. “This is going to be more and more prevalent.”

About 50 counselors with specialties including cancer, pediatrics and prenatal care have registered for the conference, said Kimberly Lewis, genetic services coordinator for the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education in Atlanta. On the agenda is creating an association to unite genetic counselors from different fields to network and collaborate.

“When we started to form this group, nobody knew each other,” said Lewis, who has spearheaded the effort to create the new group. “If we finally work together, maybe we can increase access to care and help all our patients.”

Georgia lags behind other states in the accessibility of genetic counseling, Lewis said.

“Big chunks of the state aren’t being served. This could help us identify areas where we might need outreach and education,” she said, by letting doctors know when to recommend genetic counseling and where to send patients.

When Delaney was hired in 2010, she became the only genetic counselor between Atlanta and Florida. But this year, Delaney said she can barely meet the growing demand for cancer-related genetic counseling.

“I feel like being as big a medical center as we are, it’s really surprising to me that I’m the only genetic counselor,” she said. “We need a prenatal one, and although we have the Children’s Hospital here, Macon children who need genetic counseling have to go to Emory” in Atlanta, which started offering a genetic counseling degree for the first time this year.

Doctors are beginning to better understand the role of heredity in cardiovascular disease and some neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease, so the demand for genetic counseling is likely to expand in those areas, too, Delaney said.

The effort to create a statewide genetic counseling association grew out of a 2011 cancer study that enrolled many Maconites. The study was part of a broader public education and screening program focused on breast and ovarian cancer and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lewis said. Women received genetic counseling through public health clinics as the study sought to identify underserved groups, such as the uninsured, who might be at high risk.

The project brought together genetic counselors who focus on cancer surveillance, Lewis said. After they began talking about pursuing state licensing for genetic counselors, as many other states have, they decided to try to gather all the counselors in their field for the conversation.

Licensing genetic counselors is the long-term goal, Delaney and Lewis said. Delaney said licensing would make it easier for counselors to order tests and ease the billing process.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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