Genetic Counseling Goes Virtual

By Sara Bondell - July 20, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic brought fear and uncertainty to many, it also brought time. Time for many to focus on what is important; and for Lynn Morrison, that was her health.

Morrison, caught up in the hustle of work, missed her mammogram last year. She decided to take advantage of the increased time on her hands to get back on track.

Lynn Morrison with her children Shea and Cullen
Lynn Morrison with her children Shea and Cullen

The mammogram led to a biopsy and in May Morrison was diagnosed with stage 3 invasive lobular carcinoma, two days before her 50th birthday. She would need a mastectomy, but was interested in genetic testing to determine if she was at risk to develop cancer in her other breast and should opt for a double mastectomy instead.

“I felt it was essential to get genetic testing done to make me comfortable,” said Morrison. “Information is power and knowing more helps you make wise decisions.”

Morrison made an appointment with a genetic counselor, but because of COVID-19 the consultation would be virtual. It wasn’t only a first for Morrison, whose other oncology appointments had been in-person, but also new for the genetic counselors.

Christine Steele, certified genetic counselor
Christine Steele, certified genetic counselor

The genetic counselors planned to launch telemedicine in a limited capacity in July, but the pandemic fast tracked those plans. By the beginning of April, the department was 100% virtual.

“We do provide psychosocial counseling and establish a rapport with patients, so not being physically in a room together took some getting used to,” said genetic counselor Christine Steele. “But after establishing the policies and protocols we found a lot of patients preferred not coming to campus because it limited their exposure.”

Carolyn Haskins, certified genetic counselor
Carolyn Haskins, certified genetic counselor

Switching the appointments to virtual visits also provided a solution to another COVID-19 challenge: counseling in a mask.

“That would be really hard because I tend to express a lot with my mouth,” said genetic counselor Carolyn Haskins. “It would feel very sterile.”

While Morrison’s first meeting with Steele was through a computer screen, the pair agrees they were able to establish an even stronger bond than if they had met in an exam room. Steele’s Irish doodle Bridger popped his head into the appointment, so Morrison invited her labs Sadie and Guinness into the video chat.

“I felt comfortable within the first five minutes,” said Morrison. “It was a type of connection I wouldn’t get in the office. I got to see her in her home environment and she got to see me in mine with all my family pictures in the background.”

Steele was able to put a rush on Morrison’s test results so she could make her decision before the scheduled surgery. Morrison tested negative for the markers that would put her at risk for more breast cancer, and she opted for a unilateral mastectomy.

Steele and Haskins say they are continuing to get positive feedback from other patients, so much so that they see virtual visits being a permanent option moving forward. They are working on a time study to see if counseling some patients virtually will enable them to help more patients, and are expanding the team to meet the increasing demand for appointments.

“We can now reach patients who live far away or are too sick to travel who want genetic testing for their family members’ sake,” said Haskins. “It is comforting to know we have options for them.”

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Sara Bondell Medical Science Writer 813-745-1353 More Articles

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