Genetic counselors at UBC educate patients about patterns and risks associated with neurological health.
Living with a diagnosis or family history of neurological disease is a difficult burden for an individual. Genetic counselors bridge the gap between diagnosis and reality, effectively educating patients about their medical history and potential risks.
“My role [primarily] said Emily Dwash, genetic counselor at the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders (UBCH CARD). Her work includes “direct patient care,” where she spends her time addressing cognitive issues, preventive strategies, and possible family history.
Her clinic is commonly referred to as the UBC Alzheimer’s Clinic, but there are many different types of cognitive impairment that fall under the umbrella of dementia.
“We see patients with Lewy body disease and we also see patients with frontotemporal dementia,” she said. Dementia can also be caused by a stroke or by obstruction of blood flow to the brain. In addition, there are a wide range of rarer conditions that may or may not be hereditary.
Contrary to popular belief, genetic counseling rarely revolves around the concept of “genetics” itself.
“There are genetic forms of these conditions, but they are the exception rather than the rule,” she explained. In general, genetics plays a minor role in this disease.
A major part of her work is helping patients adjust to their diagnosis and understand their options in this rapidly changing healthcare environment.
become a genetic counselor
UBC is one of five Canadian universities offering genetic counseling programs. This her two-year master’s degree provides students with both the basic and practical knowledge to become a genetic counselor.
“I see it as the intersection of psychology and medicine,” said Robin Curtis, education coordinator for UBC’s Department of Medical Genetics.
“In their first year, I think it’s probably two-thirds theory,” he said. As a student progresses into his second year, practice-based learning makes up his two-thirds of the programme.
Curtis described these direct experiences as one of the “defining features of genetic counseling.”
Through clinical rotations, students are given the opportunity to work alongside genetic counselors and learn about the profession through first-hand experience. Curtis explained that students crossed various states and sometimes traveled to the United States to visit various hospitals.
The path to becoming a genetic counselor has become very competitive over time, with a small number of applicants joining the program.
“Our freshmen are only six students each year,” Curtis explains. Out of about 120 applicants, about 30 will be interviewed to narrow down the applicants to the final group.
However, given the dramatic innovations in neurological disease research, the high number of applicants is not surprising.
Dwosh explained that one of the key aspects of being a genetic counselor is keeping up with new discoveries in the scientific community to keep patients up to date.
“The idea of sequencing the whole [protein-coding part of the genome] Twenty years ago it wasn’t even on our radar,” she said. Her class was her fourth graduating class in this program when she first earned her master’s degree. Today, many of the technologies and innovations she dreamed of during her school days are becoming a reality.
“It’s a field that is constantly evolving.”