Friday, March 3, 2017

Mulling Over Ethics as Genetic Counseling Students

I find that one of the unique aspects of the Pitt Genetic Counseling Program is the strong focus on ethical principles in the curriculum.  For example, students participate in a course entitled, “Ethical Issues in Clinical and Public Health Genetics,” in their first and second year. The purpose of the course is to discuss genomics and genetic counseling topics within an ethical framework.

For the course, each week, a first and second-year student pair up to present a topic on which they lead the class discussion. The topics that I have had the pleasure of discussing have been equally intriguing and challenging; they are always pertinent to current issues in the field as well as conundrums that may be faced in the future, especially as genomic technology advances so rapidly. Some examples of topics from my favorite discussions include: post-mortem genetic testing, language barriers and the use of interpreters, prenatal whole exome sequencing, the addition of diseases to newborn screening, and population screening for BRAC1/2 mutations.

Although we touch on ethical principles in many of our classes throughout the program, this course is different due to our instructors. We are lucky to have Dr. Lisa Parker co-lead the class with our program director, Dr. Robin Grubs. Dr. Parker is a philosopher-bioethicist whose research focuses on genetic research, genetic counseling, and pharmacogenomics. She brings a nuanced ethical insight to every class and can play a perfect “devil’s advocate”, which allows us to see a situation from multiple perspectives. I feel that her background and expertise help to encourage us to grapple with the ethical quandaries that we tend to find ourselves in during these discussions.

Overall, I find the ethics course extremely beneficial as a genetic counseling student. As a first-year student, I was fascinated by the insight of our second-year students. It was amazing to see how much they had learned from their rotations and how personal experiences with patients gave them unique insights into certain ethical situations. Now, as a second year, I feel that the ethics discussions allow me to think critically about my patient interactions and to learn from the experiences of my classmates. It doesn’t matter how much I think I know about a topic prior to the discussion, I always come away with a more refined view.

 -Emily Griffenkranz, Class of 2017

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