A genetic counselor might sound like a profession from the distant future, but for 33-year-old Jaellah Thalberg, it’s her full-time job in the now.
Thalberg works at Legacy Health’s Salmon Creek Medical Center advising families in the prenatal realm.
As interest in DNA testing for health and ancestry continues to grow, demand for counseling in a medical setting has too. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, employment of genetic counselors was expected to grow faster than most other occupations — a whopping 21 percent through 2029.
Why would anyone need a genetic counselor?
“It can be helpful for navigating medical care. The reason why we do genetic testing, if we get positive tests, we can do different treatment options and have opportunities to do a follow-up plan for that person and make sure that their screening is happening on time and getting appointments we recommend,” Thalberg said. “It can definitely impact how much or how little intervention people receive.”
Before the pandemic, Thalberg, a Ridgefield native, worked at the hospital. But since her job can be done at home, she’s advising between three to seven patients a day virtually from her basement office in Hazel Dell.
“It’s neat to see the directions where genetics has gone and how its expanding, but it’s still about educating people about what to expect,” she said. “We’re a growing profession, and we maybe don’t have all the trained professionals in the field that we’d like to address the number of people who are testing right now.”
The Columbian caught up with Thalberg to learn more.
For those who maybe have never heard of genetic counseling, can you describe what you do?
We are providers in a clinic. We’re not doctors, but we’re part of the team. We help families navigate testing options and family histories related to genetic conditions, birth defects or other things that might be going on. The three most common worlds in genetic counseling are prenatal, pediatric and cancer. But the profession is really diversified. In the last few years, we have genetic counselors that specialize in neurological conditions and other things. We talk about the benefits and limitations to doing genetic testing. Sometimes it doesn’t provide all the answers we hope it does.
What are some of the conditions you come across most often and how do you work with patients to address it?
I am a prenatal genetic counselor, so we talk to families about, like, if they have a family history of certain birth defects, learning disabilities — it’s a broad category. If they want to have a conversation about what testing we offer, and if there’s a known genetic defect in family, what’s the chance for them (to pass it on). I talk about carrier screening, which is a blood draw to see if Mom and Dad are carriers for the same genetic condition. We have blood draws or other tests to test for Down syndrome. We have conversations with some families who say, “This isn’t for me. I don’t want to do anything further,” and they may just do ultrasound.
Have you had patients choose to terminate a pregnancy due to information they received?
We’re in maternal fetal medicine, so we support the right to choose. If they choose to keep a pregnancy, we will help them and talk to a pediatrician. Other families may choose to end a pregnancy, and that’s an option as well. It really is patient specific about what that result means for them and how they find value in that information. Some families just use it to be prepared at delivery, to reach out to support groups, to reach out to a pediatrician who specializes in a condition. I would say that’s an atypical scenario to counsel someone who may choose not have further pregnancies.
There are people out there worried about genetic discrimination. What are your thoughts?
I mean, there are laws in place to protect your genetic information against discrimination: the GINA Act. It’s illegal. That is something that comes up in counseling. We talk about what that law protects and the gaps in that law. I have not run into discrimination issues.
What’s your advice to people who are wary?
I’d say to ask your questions. I mean, my role as a genetic counselor isn’t that we’re trying to convince people that genetic testing is right for them — I just want to have a conversation: Is genetic testing in line with your values and goals? If it is, let’s move forward. If you have big concerns about genetic testing, I want to know.
WORKING IN CLARK COUNTY
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