People choose careers for all sorts of reasons depending on what matters most to them and what captures their attention. Skills however are just as important as the right attitude for a certain kind of role and some jobs are simply not for the faint-hearted as is the case of a career in Genetic Counselling.
We have spoken to Mrs Frieda Loubser about her role as Genetic Counsellor in the Western Cape, South Africa to obtain an insider’s view.
What is Genetic Counselling?
Genetic Counselling is unlike most other health science professions involving genetics because it does not entail working at the bench in the lab although a background in the science is critical. Patients are usually referred for counselling by a medical practitioner or health professional.
The profession of Genetic Counselling involves working with individuals and/or families who have genetic diseases or who are at risk for such a disease, or those who want to understand their genetic history and what risks they or their offspring may have of being affected by an inherited disease.
The counselling process involves compiling an accurate pedigree (depicting relevant family medical history), providing genetic testing where necessary, interpreting and explaining results, and supporting families or individuals to cope with results that may be difficult to process.Genetic conditions include birth defects, deafness, mental retardation, sickle cell anaemia, Huntington disease, Downs Syndrome or cancer.Besides support,Genetic Counsellors provide patients and their families with information about their condition, identify resources to assist the family and help them make informed decisions.
An accurate assessment of the risk of genetic disease is an integral part of the genetic counselling process and the counsellor’s skills therefore include risk calculations based on the mode of inheritance of the condition and the family history.
Genetic counsellors play a critical role in educating individuals about genetic diseases and how genetics influences their lives.
Photo: Frieda Loubser, Genetic Counsellor in South Africa
Why did you decide on this career on how are Genetic Counsellors trained in SA?
Frieda Loubser was one of the first students to graduate with an MSc degree in Genetic Counselling in South Africa.
“If you have a keen interest in science and genetics in particular, but you would like to work with people, genetic counselling is an intellectually challenging, interesting and rewarding career” says Frieda.“It can be an emotionally demanding job, but it is also very satisfying to support a patient/couple/family to make informed choices and adapt to their own challenges”.
Training is currently provided as a Masters degree at the University of Cape Town and at the University of the Witwatersrand. The training involves course-work over two years, as well as being immersed in clinical exposure at teaching hospitals, and then a research dissertation in an area pertinent to genetics and genetic counselling in particular. Upon graduation, the student is expected to do a year’s internship, before formal registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).
Many counsellors have joined the training programme (at UCT) after a BSc degree and Honours degree in Genetics. However, those with psychology as part of their undergrad and postgrad may be at an advantage. There is a move to consider attracting more trainees with subjects in the humanities.
How do you feel about your job security?
Currently, there are no Department of Health Genetic Counselling posts in the Western Cape. Frieda has been employed on an annual contract basis for 6 years through different funding sources. She currently works part-time at the historic Groote Schuur and Red Cross Children’s hospitals and is one of the few Genetic Counsellors in private practice. Her practice is based at Christiaan Barnard, Panorama and UCT Private Hospitals.
Not all health care practitioners know of the profession or the role that genetic counsellors can play as a complimentary service to their medical management. Kwazulu-Natal is the only province with a Department of Health genetic counselling post. Genetic Counsellors in Gauteng are employed by the National Health Laboratory Services.
The Genetic Counselling process is complex enough without additional challenges and funding for posts is an urgent concern. Further financial investment to support the work of those currently practicing is critical.
What motivates you to persist in these trying circumstances?
“I have a passion for the work that I do and I know it makes a huge difference for families who live with a genetic condition. Given the rapidly evolving nature of the field of genetics, Genetic Counsellors will have an increasingly important role to act as an interface between the genetic laboratory, the patient/family and other health professionals,” says Frieda.
The need for genetic counsellors will increase as technology improves to make genetic testing more affordable and to improve accuracy of predicting risk. Perhaps you would like to consider a career in Genetic Counselling?