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Published Thursday 14 Mar 2024

Meet Sally, one of Genetic Counsellors for our region.

Genetic counsellors play a crucial role in navigating the intricate web of genetic information, providing support and guidance to individuals facing the complexities of hereditary conditions. We caught up with Sally Jackson to delve into the world of genetic counselling. Sally is one of the dedicated genetic counsellors at the Genetic Health Service NZ based at Wellington Regional Hospital.

Could you describe the role of a genetic counsellor and how your team operates within the Genetic Health Service NZ?
Genetic counsellors at Genetic Health Service NZ primarily work with patients who have a family history of genetic conditions or are themselves affected by such conditions.

We assist in organizing genetic testing and cover a wide range of genetic areas, including cancer, cardiac and neurology.

The service operates nationally, with hubs in Wellington, Christchurch, and Auckland, covering outreach clinics and engaging with various specialties through close relationships we have built up with our clinical teams locally. Our team includes genetic doctors and we collaborate with other professionals to ensure comprehensive and inclusive genetic counselling services.

Can you elaborate on what drew you to this profession and why you find it so fulfilling?
I was initially interested in medicine, but the lengthy training period deterred me. In the early 2000s, while exploring career options, I stumbled upon genetic counselling in a careers book (a careers book - that makes me feel old).

The idea of combining biology, ethical considerations, patient education, and advocacy intrigued me.

Job shadowing a genetic counsellor during my undergraduate studies confirmed my interest in the field. The dynamic nature of the role, involving diverse skills and interactions with patients, made it an appealing and fulfilling choice.

Can you shed light on the educational path to becoming a genetic counsellor in New Zealand?
To become a genetic counsellor in New Zealand, individuals need to enrol abroad, as there is no local training program. Currently, a mostly remote training program through the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) exists, but it involves an obvious financial investment. My journey included a four-year undergraduate degree (which was in bio-psychology), followed by a two-year master's program, involving both educational training and clinical shadowing. Following this, board certification is required to achieve fellowship in our professional organisation, the Human Genetics Society of Australasia.

Is there any advice you would offer to individuals considering a career in genetic counselling?
Genetic counselling can be a rewarding career for those who enjoy patient interaction, possess a keen interest in genetics, and appreciate a challenging yet fulfilling environment. Persistence and seeking opportunities to learn and connect with genetic counsellors are crucial. While the profession may require studying abroad due to the lack of local training programs, the job prospects are promising because genetics is here to stay. Genetic counselling continues to grow in importance, presenting opportunities for individuals with transferable skills and a commitment to advancing patient care. We welcome and value diversity in our profession.

How do genetic counsellors collaborate with other healthcare professionals, and what specific roles do you play in the broader healthcare system?
Genetic counsellors establish long-term relationships with healthcare professionals, collaborating with specialists in various fields. We offer advice and support, especially in cases where genetic testing is involved.

Our role is to bridge the gap between genetic information and its communication to patients and their whānau, ensuring that results are accurately interpreted and providing support throughout the process.

Given your extensive experience, how have you seen technological advancements impact the field of genetic counselling?
Over the years, technological advancements have played a significant role in genetic testing. The cost of genetic tests has decreased, allowing for broader accessibility. New genes have been discovered, offering more insights into genetic conditions. While the fundamental principles of communication and counselling remain constant, technological advancements have enhanced the accuracy and efficiency of genetic testing, allowing for better-informed decision-making. Further investment could enable the benefits of preventative medicine for our unique population.

You were recently invited to an event at the Australian Parliament in Canberra. What was that like?
I was previously the New Zealand representative in the Genetic Counselling special interest group on the Human Genetics Society of Australasia, so was invited to an event at Australian Parliament in November. This provided an opportunity for genetic counsellors to engage with representatives from the Australian government and highlight the profession's value. Genetic counsellors play a crucial role in patient care, and such events help advocate for the resources needed to enhance services. It was also a chance for professionals to network, share experiences, and learn from one another, contributing to the continual improvement of genetic counselling practices.


The Barunga Statement, Australian Parliament        Sally (in red) at Human Genetics Society of Australasia event

I also got to see the Barunga Statement, a painted document presented to the Australian government in the 1980s. From my reading, it was intended as an equivalent to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, but this was the first time I had heard of it. It was interesting to see it hanging there as a reminder of our obligations under Te Tiriti.

After this event, I headed to Melbourne for a conference, which was another amazing opportunity to talk through some of the main ethnical issues with some of the best minds in genetic counselling in Australasia.

In terms of the team structure, how many genetic counsellors are there in Wellington, and what is the makeup of your team?
In Wellington, we currently have five genetic counsellors. While none of us work full-time, collectively, we contribute to approximately three and a half to four full-time equivalents.  

Sally's colleagues. L-R: Sarah (currently on maternity leave), Nadia Preitner, Genetic Counsellor, Nicola Menzies, Genetic Counsellor, Emma Felix, Senior Genetic Counsellor and Alice Christian, Senior Genetic Counsellor and Team Lead

The national structure includes additional genetic counsellors in Christchurch and Auckland. Regular meetings, peer case reviews, and educational sessions strengthen the collaboration among the three sites, ensuring a cohesive and supportive team dynamic.

Outside of work, what interests and activities occupy your time?
I enjoy hot yoga and biking to work on my e-bike (I participated in the Aotearoa Bike Challenge this year again). Being a parent to my eight- and ten-year-old children keeps me busy with their various sports activities. It’s important to create a balance between personal interests and family commitments.

Any final thoughts or messages you would like to convey to medical professionals and the public about the role of genetic counsellors?
To medical professionals, I would emphasize that genetic counsellors are available for advice and collaboration. Despite a busy schedule and a long waitlist, we are here to support and contribute to patient care. Additionally, the proposal for a national database would significantly improve efficiency and patient care within Genetic Health Service NZ, creating a model for other national services. We encourage ongoing collaboration and recognition of the value that genetic counsellors bring to the broader healthcare system.