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10 Questions with Erin Youngs

We talk to the director for KU Medical Center’s new genetic counseling degree program.

Erin Youngs portrait
Erin Youngs, M.S., CGC

For those who don’t know, can you explain what genetic counseling is?

Genetic counseling is the process in which genetic counselors, as members of a health care team, provide information about genetics, inheritance and specific genetic conditions. They discuss with patients the benefits, risks and limitations of genetic testing, interpret genetic test results and help them make the best decisions using those results.

Can you tell me a little about your background and how you ended up at KU Medical Center?

I grew up in Olathe, Kansas, earned my Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Central Methodist University and attended graduate school at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center for my master’s in genetic counseling. I practiced as a clinical genetic counselor for several years in the Kansas City area before joining the University of Oklahoma’s genetic counseling leadership team. When an opportunity arose to come back to the city that I love to start a new program here, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.

What drew you to the genetic counseling field?

I knew I wanted to be in health care, but I wanted an opportunity to spend more time with patients and their families that often isn’t available in many health care fields. I was fortunate to have an advisor that introduced me to genetic counseling as a potential career path.

Is genetic counseling a growing field?

The demand for genetic counselors is exploding across the nation and having the opportunity to help meet that demand by training exemplary genetic counselors here in Kansas is very exciting.

Home DNA testing is readily available to almost everyone now. What is your personal opinion of these tests and what might be some potential risks for direct-to-consumer genetic testing?

The number of at-home DNA tests available to consumers continues to increase and I think what is most important is that people understand what a test can tell them and that they have the resources to interpret the results. At-home DNA tests don’t cover all parts of genes associated with medical conditions or symptoms. Because of this, a test may miss unique variations that have medical significance for a patient, and a different, more comprehensive test may be a better option for some individuals. Some companies that offer at-home DNA tests have developed partnerships with networks of genetic counselors who can offer guidance to patients.

How important is it that KU is launching a genetic counseling master’s program?

The School of Health Professions will offer the only professional degree program for genetic counseling at KU and in the state of Kansas. This program will provide prospective students an opportunity to stay in their region to train and will create professionals who are more likely to fill local positions, allowing for greater access to care for Kansans and others in the region.

What are the challenges in starting up a new program like this one?

From the national accrediting body, there are specific time frames for submitting applications, so that provided an initial challenge, but we were able to submit by our targeted date.

What are some reasons that someone would need to consult with a genetic counselor?

People may see a genetic counselor for a wide range of indications including pregnancy planning due to a family history of a genetic condition; during pregnancy after abnormal test results such as ultrasound or amniocentesis, maternal infections or genetic screening; addressing concerns if a child is showing signs or symptoms of a disorder that could be genetic-related, including abnormal newborn screening results, birth defects, developmental delays, vision or hearing problems and autism spectrum disorders; or helping patients to manage health issues, including specialty areas such as cardiovascular, oncology and psychiatric genetic counseling.

Where do genetic counselors work? Do they always work with patients or are there other roles?

Genetic counselors work in a variety of settings including pediatric, adult and prenatal care, as well as in non-patient facing roles in laboratories, industry, public health, education and research. Many genetic counselors have jobs that involve roles in multiple areas.

What are the attributes that a genetic counselor needs?

There are many skills that serve a genetic counselor well, but foremost are good communication skills, the ability to simplify complex topics, empathy and a love of science.

University of Kansas Medical Center

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