Columbia University Medical Center

Columbia Launches Master’s Program in Genetic Counseling

A colorful DNA sequence illustrates this story about a new master's program educating genetic counselors.

DNA sequence | Credit: Gio_tto

New York state has approved a new master’s program in genetic counseling at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The two-year program will begin in fall 2019 and educate students in clinical genetics, counseling, communication, genomic medicine, and precision medicine.

Genetic counselors help patients and their families understand how genes shape their health and provide personalized guidance in making medical and family decisions. With the rapid growth of genetic tests and an American public eager to use them, demand is high for these professionals. A search of the Genetic Testing Registry of the NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information yields thousands of tests ranging from cancer to heart disease to neurological conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that employment of genetic counselors is projected to grow 29 percent from 2016 to 2026.

The workforce opportunities for genetic counselors have expanded greatly, especially in the last decade.

“The workforce opportunities for genetic counselors have expanded greatly, especially in the last decade,” says Amanda Bergner, MS, CGC, the program’s director. “In the past, genetic counselors mainly worked with patients in clinical care settings. Now, in addition to patient-facing work, genetic counselors are employed within commercial diagnostic labs, private companies, health insurance companies, and advocacy groups.”

As workforce opportunities expand, genetic counselors are in short supply across the United States. The nation has 4,600 board-certified genetic counselors, not nearly enough to meet existing demand. The shortage is especially acute in New York state, where the Albany metropolitan area, in particular, has one of the lowest counselor-to-resident ratios in the country. New programs—like Columbia’s—are starting to increase the supply, but a workforce study commissioned by the Genetic Counselor Workforce Working Group calculated that the supply of genetic counselors will not match demand until sometime between 2024 and 2030.

Students in the new VP&S program will be taught by genetic counselors, researchers, and physicians working at the medical center. “We’re capitalizing on the experience and knowledge of genetic counselors here at Columbia,” says Bergner, who notes that counselors are employed in multiple VP&S departments as well as the Institute for Genomic Medicine (IGM). “Our genetic counselors have nearly 200 years of collective experience to bring to our students.”

Amanda Bergner is director of Columbia's new master’s program in genetic counseling.

Amanda Bergner

In addition, Columbia’s program will differ from others by immersing students more deeply in precision medicine and the social constructs that inform health disparities. For half of their second year, all students will intern at the IGM and have exposure to the All of Us Research Program, which seeks to create a health database with genomic information from at least 1 million people.

Students in the program will start patient care interactions in their first year in the state-of-the-art Vagelos Education Center, where they will do training exercises on medical cases with standardized patient-actors in the building’s simulation center. During years one and two, they will also complete clinical internships at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

These experiences will teach students counseling strategies and communication skills that support patient empowerment. “Genetic counselors are being asked to be more proficient at promoting health and facilitating clients making good choices for themselves and their families in the midst of a rapidly increasing amount of information,” says Bergner. “We have designed the Columbia curriculum to give students those skills.”

Applications will open in the fall for 12 slots in the new program. View more information about the Columbia University Master’s Program in Genetic Counseling.

Bergner is also associate professor of genetic counseling (in genetics & development) at VP&S.