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Not your everyday genetic assistant

As the need for genetic counselors becomes greater and greater, genetic assistants have become more valuable in relieving some of the responsibilities that the genetic counselor previously handled. The popularity of genetics has grown tremendously in the past couple of years. The words “DNA,” “CRISPR,” and “hereditary”, are now part of everyday conversations. However, that has not always been the case. New developments, research and increasing knowledge of genetics has brought this once unknown specialty to light, and with it added responsibilities.  Unfortunately, while the number of genetic counselor training programs has increased, there are not enough to fill the increasing need.

In 2015, Quest Diagnostics created the position of Genetic Assistant (GA). The position offered much- needed assistance to our busy genetic counseling team. Genetic assistants in most settings typically perform clerical tasks such as appointment scheduling, data entry and database updates.  Our program at Quest Diagnostics, allows the GA to be more involved in tasks previously handled solely by genetic counselors. Our genetic assistants are directly involved in correspondence with high-profile clients. They maintain data for research studies, and some have shared authorship on oncology publications. Some have moved on to become genetic counselors. The position of a genetic assistant has several qualifications: the top qualification being a bachelor’s degree in a life science. Customer service experience, the ability to multitask and strong communication skills are also beneficial to this position. Quest Diagnostics currently has a team of 7 genetic assistants. Their backgrounds range from Medical Technologist, Researcher, IT Specialist, Clinical Scientist, and QC Technician/Supervisor. Impressive, yes?

A huge part of a genetic counselor’s job is to research patient clinical and family history. Who better to assist in this task than a genetic assistant? The genetic assistant is experienced in customer care issues and can retrieve needed information from the patient or client. A great deal of their day is spent contacting patients for family history, familial mutations, missing genetic test information and other important information. Clients are often contacted by the genetic assistant for test clarification, clinical notes, patient diagnosis, and previous patient genetic test results. The genetic assistant has been trained to discuss genetic tests and the differences between tests. Knowledge of this information is essential in identifying the most appropriate test given the patient’s diagnosis, symptoms, and family background. “Quest” offers a large variety of genetic tests; however, without the roadmap to what each test does can be quite confusing. The genetic assistant is there to help.

Another important genetic assistant responsibility is database maintenance. These databases contain research information provided by the genetic counselors.  The genetic assistants compile the data for easy retrieval of, clinical information for purposes of diagnosis, and for research for publications and to improve future testing processes. The genetic assistant maintains databases with daily updates and metrics. Live databases are also maintained; these require outbound calls to the client. For example, an ordering physician may indicate he would like a cystic fibrosis test processed on a patient. The genetic assistant would contact this physician and clarify that Quest offers 8 different cystic fibrosis tests, explain each test, and allow the physician to choose the test that best suits the patient’s clinical needs.  The genetic assistant then documents the outcome and notifies the lab on what test is needed. 

The experience of assisting genetic counselors is most rewarding. The genetic assistant is crucial in insuring stakeholders in Genomic Services-inside the company and among our customers-get what they need. Genetic assistants, genetic counselors, and the high-quality, timely accuracy of Quest Diagnostics testing; a trio that delivers.

Charlie Rhodes