Karen Valdez-Gonzalez, MS, MPH, LCGC
®, is Supervisor, Genetic Services at Hackensack University Medical Center.
Why did you choose to become a genetic counselor?
I always had an interest in Biology/Genetics and wanted a career which could combine the sciences and clinical interactions with people. In college, one of my professors presented information about genetic counseling during a class lecture, which I found intriguing. I requested additional information from NSGC. The more I learned and researched about the profession, the more I knew it was exactly what I was looking for.
Can you tell us about your role as genetic counseling supervisor at Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC)?
I work with a team of 10 genetic counselors, four medical geneticists, and a metabolic dietitian. Our department sees patients in all areas – cancer, prenatal/preconception, and clinical genetics and metabolism (adult/pediatrics). I assist in managing the overall clinical operations for the department, as well as educational responsibilities and ongoing research commitments. It has been an excellent opportunity to work with a dedicated team of genetics professionals and to continue to grow the genetics service within our hospital and other hospitals in the network.
Why did you choose to specialize in pediatric genetics?
When I initially began working, I was seeing both prenatal and pediatric patients, but over time as the field continued to evolve and become more specialized, my focus shifted towards pediatrics. As I also have a Master’s in Public Health, one of my areas of interests has been newborn screening. In the last several years, I have been working within metabolic genetics. As we manage the clinical care for these patients, I am establishing long term relationships with many families.
How has your career as a genetic counselor matched/differed from what you expected?
I am a practicing genetic counselor for more than 20 years. It is amazing to witness the evolution of the profession, its growth and expansion. The options offered to patients, in terms of testing and treatment, were not all available when I first started in this profession. I initially thought that by this point in my career, I would have changed paths. However, I value working in clinical genetics and appreciate the expanded roles of genetic counselors. Although recruitment has become challenging for clinical roles, working as a genetic counselor is truly rewarding.
What path did you take to get to your current role?
I possess an undergraduate degree in Biology from Rutgers University and a Master’s in Genetic Counseling from the Medical College of Virginia. I began working as a genetic counselor at the University of Medical and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in both prenatal and pediatric genetics. During my employment at UMDNJ, I obtained a Master’s in Public Health. In 2010, I began working at Hackensack University Medical Center, again initially with prenatal and pediatric genetic patients, but then ultimately specializing in pediatrics/clinical genetics. In 2016, I became the clinical supervisor.
What does an average day look like as a clinical genetic counselor?
Our days are spent in direct face-to-face contact with our scheduled patients. Prior to patient meetings there is a lot of case preparation. After patient meetings, there is plenty of follow-up communication with our patients or other providers/laboratories in order to coordinate care and obtain resources for patients. We cover both outpatient visits and inpatient consults. In addition, we support the genetic counseling students, residents, and fellows rotating through our department and are involved in educational efforts.
What is the most rewarding part of being a genetic counselor? The most challenging?
I enjoy being able to help and support families in the process of establishing a diagnosis and coordinating care and treatment, if applicable. The greatest challenge for me is navigating through health care insurance to obtain needed authorizations for patients. Another challenge is having availability of services to satisfy the demand for appointment requests received.
Where do you see the profession going in the next five to 10 years?
I see that the demand for genetic services will continue to increase, as genetics is impacting almost, if not all, medical specialties and as more diagnostic and treatment options become clinically available. Due to the current clinical shortage of genetic counselors, additional training programs are being established to help meet this demand. Alternative service delivery models will also likely need to be considered. The importance and value of genetic counselors has been proven and will persist into the future.
What advice would you give to prospective genetic counselors?
Genetic counseling is an excellent career choice. There are so many roles and areas of interest which genetic counselors can now pursue, which were not as available when I first graduated (e.g., laboratory roles, medical science liaisons, research coordinators, etc). It is a career where you are always learning and where meaningful contributions can be made.
What do you think is the biggest challenge of the profession at the moment?
One of the main concerns I see with the profession is the need to increase the diversity of its membership. I have been practicing more than 20 years and the profession has not changed much in this regard. I appreciate that efforts being made by the professional organizations to address this concern and look forward to seeing this continue.
What are things you think genetic counselors could do to help in dealing with these challenges?
We should continue to increase awareness about the profession to diverse populations. We should involve genetic counselors in conversations about this and work towards achieving this goal.
What advice would you give to a genetic counselor just entering the profession?
While there has been an increase in employment opportunities in the industry, I think genetic counselors just entering the profession should consider working in the clinical field to start their career. There is so much that is learned about the impact of genetic diseases on an individual and on a family through clinical interactions. These experiences are invaluable.
What particular advice would you give to counselors of Hispanic descent as they embark on their careers? How do you see the role of Hispanics/BIPOC in the field of genetic counseling?
I welcome them to the profession and encourage them to be involved within the organization, to pursue leadership roles, and to have an active voice. They should be proud of their accomplishments and continue to be motivated to pursue opportunities available to them in the field. I would also encourage them to be mentors to others and continue to grow awareness about this career opportunity.
Our role in the field of genetic counseling is essential. We live in a diverse country and it is important to have diversity within genetic counseling providers. This can help to meet the social, cultural and linguistic needs of patients. It can also lead to a better understanding of how to provide culturally competent care when we have diversity within the profession.
ABGC Spotlight is a monthly series that features Diplomates, health care professionals
and students sharing their unique experiences with genetic counseling.