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Let’s Talk About Support with Sheetal Parmar, Vice President of Medical Affairs

As genetic testing has increasingly entered routine clinical practice, the demand for genetic counselors has skyrocketed.1 Genetic counselors play a key role in the genetic testing process— helping people decide which genetic tests are right for them, helping them understand their test results, and providing information about potential next steps.

During a recent Outcomes Rocket podcast interview, Sheetal Parmar, MS, CGC, and Vice President of Medical Affairs at Natera stated, “This need for genetic counseling is why Natera, a global leader in cell-free DNA testing, currently employs more than 100 genetic counselors.”

“We believe strongly that anyone who wants to understand what the benefits and the limitations of testing are, or what the best options are for them, can benefit from genetic counseling.“

During the interview, Sheetal Parmar shared the diverse roles genetic counselors play within Natera and the medical community at large.

What is Genetic Counseling?

Genetic counselors are specially trained medical professionals, who provide information and support to people who have—or are at risk of having—a genetic condition. They also provide information to people whose children are at risk of having or who have a genetic condition. All genetic counselors have training in counseling and a master’s degree in either human genetics or in genetic counseling.

Natera does not offer genetic counseling services. However, both current and prospective patients can schedule information sessions with our board certified genetic counselors to have their questions answered about Natera’s tests and results.

“Genetic counseling is the process of helping people understand and adapt to the medical, psychological, and family implications of genetic diseases and the contribution of genetic disease to their families.“ - Sheetal Parmar, MS, CGC

Genetic counselors “spend time explaining test options, procedures and results, educating patients and providers, and helping emotionally support patients through their testing process,” she added.

If you have a genetic condition, it could mean that your family members are at a higher risk of also having that genetic condition. Part of a genetic counselor’s role is to help people understand what their test results could mean for their relatives, as well as helping them develop strategies for approaching potentially difficult or emotional conversations with family members.

Like other medical professionals, genetic counselors can specialize in different areas of medicine, such as preconception care, prenatal care, pediatrics, cancer care, and cardiology, among others. They can work in laboratories, in hospitals and academic medical centers, and in private practices.

The field of genetic counseling is growing rapidly. As the range and number of genetic tests on the market has risen dramatically in recent decades, the demand for genetic counselors has increased. As of mid-2021, 5,629 board-certified genetic counselors were practicing in the United States—”a 100% increase from ten years ago”, Parmar said. The number of practicing genetic counselors is expected to grow to more than 10,000 by 2030.1

What Do Genetic Counselors Do at Natera?

Genetic counselors perform a variety of roles throughout Natera—in patient and provider education, leadership, product development, and many other areas. Our patient-first philosophy has helped shape Natera’s aim of making personalized genetic testing and diagnostics part of the standard of care to protect health and to inform earlier, permitting targeted interventions that can help lead to longer, healthier lives.

Support Understanding

Many genetic counselors at Natera work as part of the laboratory team that provides direct support to patients and healthcare providers. Last year alone, Natera had more than 40,000 calls with healthcare providers and provided more than 28,000 complimentary genetic information sessions to patients.

Natera’s genetic counselors provide assistance to patients throughout their testing journeys—from when they are first learning about a test to when they are considering their next steps after receiving results.

“We provide genetic information sessions either before testing or after testing for all of our panels of tests at Natera, so patients can have the opportunity to ask questions before they have testing. We also help them understand their results and their follow-on steps after testing.“ - Sheetal Parmar, MS, CGC

Patients and prospective patients are not the only ones who can benefit from Natera’s genetic information sessions. Natera’s genetic counselors also provide support to health care providers. Health care providers can have questions about whether a particular patient is a good candidate for a specific test, need more information about a test, or about a specific set of results and potential next steps.

If you are interested in learning more about Natera’s genetic tests, you can schedule a complimentary genetic information session using this online scheduling form.

Why Genetic Counseling Is Important

Parmar emphasized the value of genetic counseling, especially for patients after they receive their test results. One of the most important parts of counseling, she noted, is meeting patients where they are in their lives.

“People are having testing at different stages in their lives,” she explained. “Someone may be choosing to have carrier screening in order to determine if they're a carrier or at risk to pass on a genetic condition to their children as part of reproductive testing… and that could be done before you're even thinking about getting pregnant or sometime during the pregnancy.”

“The same applies for hereditary cancer testing,” she added. “If someone is doing this testing as a screen to find out more information… or dealing with the results in the context of a [cancer] diagnosis, it is going to have different implications. Genetic counseling is there to put those pieces together.”

Genetic counseling is not only about providing emotional support, but also logistical support such as helping patients interpret their results and consider potential next steps, as well as connecting them with specialists for further testing and potential treatments.

On Demand Resources

Parmar emphasized that Natera provides patient and healthcare provider support and education through a number of additional resources beyond direct, person-to-person support. One such effort is Natera Academy, a collection of online educational videos that cover a range of topics. Some of these videos provide broad overviews on topics such as genetics and carrier testing. Others describe how Natera’s tests can be used in practice, like this video which explains how genetic testing can help determine the cause of a pregnancy loss.

Natera provides these videos so that physicians and other health care providers have the resources they need to offer testing and to discuss results with their patients.

Another resource is NEVA, Natera’s Educational Virtual Assistant. NEVA is a chatbot available to patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It provides access to test results, interactive genetic education, and guidance on potential next steps. For people who want additional assistance, NEVA can help them schedule an appointment with one of Natera’s genetic counselors. More than 20,000 patients have had a support session with NEVA, and many have reviewed the NEVA chat agent as knowledgeable, friendly, and supportive.

With the COVID-19 global pandemic underscoring the need for telemedicine, Natera has also begun offering a comprehensive telehealth genetic counseling service. Parmar believes telemedicine services can greatly expand access to genetic counseling for people who have difficulty accessing in person care, such as those living in remote areas.

A Glimpse of the Future

Parmar sees genetic counseling as an essential component of the ongoing shift towards personalized medicine. “I think as we move into more and more personalized medicine, everyone's going to have DNA testing for whatever stage in life that they are in. We want to make sure that everyone has access to a genetic counselor and is well supported through their entire testing journey.”

References

1National Society of Genetic Counselors. Executive Summary: 2021 Professional Status Survey. Accessed January 28, 2022.