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Vanderbilt University School of Medicine to offer new master’s degree in genetic counseling

by Dec. 11, 2017, 8:47 AM

Genetic counseling is one of the fastest-growing health professions in the country. Demand for genetic counselors is far outpacing the number of trained specialists, prompting the creation of a new degree program at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The Board of Trust recently approved a master of genetic counseling degree, and the first students are expected to enroll for the fall 2019 semester.

“We are very excited about this new degree program. It addresses a large unmet need and aligns perfectly with Vanderbilt’s great strengths in genetics and precision medicine,” said Bonnie Miller, MD, Senior Associate Dean for Health Sciences Education for Vanderbilt University and Executive Vice President for Educational Affairs for Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). “It also aligns with our strategic goal of developing the range of professionals needed for continued leadership in research and clinical care,”

The new program will be housed in the Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, directed by Nancy Cox, PhD, who holds the Mary Phillips Edmonds Gray Chair and is a professor of Medicine. The 60-credit hour degree is expected to take 21 months to complete.

“As we translate genetic discoveries into medicine, the need for more health professionals educated in the best practices for transmitting this complex information to patients is front and center,” Cox said. “We are perceived as a leader in personalized and precision medicine, and this program will support moving genetics into medical care in the region.”

Nationally, the need for geneticists exceeds the capacity of existing programs. The United States has nearly 4,000 genetic counselors — 50 of them in Tennessee and 13 at VUMC in various departments. Currently, 37 programs offer a genetic counseling degree, which is required to sit for the national board exam, and many of the programs have class sizes of 8-10 students.

“Given the small number of schools, there are not many slots available,” said Cox, who is also president of the American Society of Human Genetics. “There are upward of 25 highly qualified applicants for each existing position, so we are turning away really good people in a field that desperately needs them.”

The career outlook for genetic counselors is bright.

“There are three jobs for every graduate right now,” said Martha Dudek, MS, LCGC, a senior associate in Obstetrics and Gynecology in the School of Medicine and director of Obstetrical Genetic Counseling at VUMC. She is the director of the new degree program.

“With the increasing number of genetic tests entering the clinical marketplace, there is an increasing need for experts who have the ability to help patients with decision making, results review and discussion,” Dudek said. “As genetic counselors are moving into lab and industry settings, the field as a whole is growing with more specialties and roles.”

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