A genetic or genomic test result produces complex information.
This genetic information, if delivered in the absence of a genetic health professional, can be difficult for individuals and families to understand. Genetic counsellors are specialist allied health professionals whose role includes interpreting and communicating genetic information including genetic test results to individuals and families.
The genetic counselling profession in Australia and New Zealand has been providing genetic information and psychosocial support to the public for decades.
The current landscape
With the advance of genomic technology and increasing use of genomic testing as a tool of healthcare, the demand for professional genetic counsellors is expected to significantly increase. However, in Australia and New Zealand, there are only around 220 genetic counsellors working in clinical services.
Although genetic counsellors can choose to become certified, this is not yet mandatory.
The lack of formal regulation for genetic counsellors in Australia and New Zealand means that people could access inferior services from someone using the title of genetic counsellor who is not appropriately qualified. Regulation for genetic counsellors will be critical to ensure that there are enough reliable, qualified genetic counsellors in the workforce to meet the growing need and demand for genetic services.
In 2017, a working group was formed under the auspices of the Human Genetic Society of Australasia (HGSA) to address the challenge of professional regulation.
The working group is comprised of representatives from both Australia and New Zealand and provides strategic leadership for the profession of genetic counsellors. Australian Genomics has provided seed funding toward the HGSA Working Group in recognition of the urgent need to address this issue. As a national research collaboration informing the use of genomic medicine in Australia’s healthcare, Australian Genomics views professional regulation for the genetic counselling workforce as a matter of utmost importance.
Looking for more information?
The working group has provided more information below on the current qualification and certification processes for genetic counsellors and the avenues through which the workforce could secure professional regulation.
Genetic counsellors have specialised education in genetics and counselling
Becoming a genetic counsellor requires successful completion of a clinical Master of Genetic Counselling after which, an individual can seek employment as an Associate Genetic Counsellor and apply for Board eligibility from the HGSA (i.e. “Member of HGSA”).
Board eligible genetic counsellors can voluntarily commit to training for HGSA Board Certification; a competency and skill-based assessment that takes a minimum of two years full-time employment in a clinical role. Successful completion enables an individual to use the title “Genetic Counsellor, Fellow HGSA”.
While the HGSA Board certification process ensures competence and ongoing opportunities for training of the workforce, certification is not compulsory. This means that individuals who have not been assessed to be clinically competent can advertise their services and practice as genetic counsellors.
Like other allied health professions, the genetic counselling profession recognises the need for professional regulation.
The National Alliance of Self Regulating Health Professionals (NASRHP) is the national peak body representing regulated health professionals in Australia and provides a forum for allied health professions. NASRHP recognises the important role of the National Code of Conduct (see NASRHP site here) in protecting the public from harm and assuring patients receive a quality service from certified health professionals.
Australian allied health professionals who wish to join NASRHP must meet benchmarked standards for regulation and accreditation of practitioners within that profession. This facilitates national consistency in quality and supports for regulating health professionals and satisfies national and jurisdictional regulatory requirements.
Recommendations for a way forward
The regulation of genetic counsellors through a body like NASRHP, will provide the public with confidence that they are accessing a quality service from a certified genetic counsellor. As well, it will align genetic counsellors with other allied health professionals and ensure recognition from a broader professional organisation. An application is being submitted to NASRHP in September 2018.