This post is co-authored by Alison McEwen and Chris Jacobs.

In a recent Hot Topic webinar on Work-Integrated Learning (WIL), Associate Professor Alison McEwen and Dr Chris Jacobs shared how placements, simulation workshops and networking in the Master of Genetic Counselling can transition to run successfully and authentically online. 

Preparing Genetic Counsellors for work

The Master of Genetic Counselling prepares learners to join a rapidly growing profession working with individuals and families living with inherited conditions. Genetic counsellors use their expertise and communication skills to help patients navigate the processes and implications of genetic and genomic testing, which can be confusing and overwhelming.  

The course is highly focussed on preparing students for this practical work with authentic and collaborative learning experiences, including clinical placements, simulation workshops and frequent engagement with practising genetic counsellors. These immersive experiences guide learners to enter diverse workplace roles with confidence, having practiced and reflected on their abilities in simulated clinical settings. 

Virtual clinical placements based on real-life workloads 

Virtual clinical placements (VCPs) were developed as an innovation for COVID-19. The course team, who have extensive clinical experience, created a number of authentic tasks to allow students to continue their placement activities remotely.  

For each VCP, students work in teams, supported by a clinical educator. They undertake activities including triage, running a clinic, responding to ‘on-call’ queries, presenting a case and completing relevant paperwork. Each team has a discussion thread in Canvas where meetings are planned, on-call queries are added and discussion occurs. Teams also meet daily on Zoom. The students from the alternate year group act in the role of clients, and are provided with detailed back stories. There are opportunities to reflect on the client role in class.  

Virtual simulation workshops build safe spaces and confidence 

Prior to 2020, face‐to‐face counselling simulation workshops had involved students working with standardised clients and experienced genetic counsellors. During COVID, these too had to take place remotely via Zoom. Standardised clients arrive through the Zoom waiting room and students, facilitators and clinical educators turn their cameras off to enhance authenticity. A key element of the workshops was the reflection and opportunity to put the learning into practice by meeting a second standardised client. 

Students reported that the VCPs and simulation workshops boosted their confidence, prepared them for practice and provided the opportunity to try things they would not usually be able to do on a normal placement. Creating learning environments with no formal graded evaluation or assessment contributed to a space in which students could safely try out new things and extend their skills.

Building a professional network online 

The opportunity to build a professional network is crucial for students completing professional degrees. During the pandemic, we have actively sought opportunities to help students build networks online. The number of online networking activities with community groups increased, including a series where students had an opportunity to provide phone support to Syndromes Without A Name (SWAN) families during the long Victorian lockdown. 

Other networking activities have included: 

  • Participation in online CPD activities and the annual conference for students who are Australasian Society of Genetic Counsellors members 
  • Online networking events with recent graduates, associate genetic counsellors, genetic counsellors working in multi-disciplinary teams, and professional leaders 
  • Including practicing genetic counsellors frequently in class activities 

Evaluation and impact 

The virtual clinical experiences increased first‐year students’ confidence about clinical placement and prepared second‐year students for telehealth. The adaptation to virtual clinical experiences enhanced learning, prepared students for practice, met the requirements of the accreditation body and enabled our final year students to graduate on time.  

The need for genetic counsellors is rising due to the increased availability of genetic and genomic technology enabling people to make a variety of health decisions. At the same time, there is a huge gap in qualified professionals in this area. Students are experiencing great rates of employment once they finish their qualification. Participating in well-developed simulation activities provides students with excellent opportunities to develop their skills and apply knowledge without overwhelming the profession.

References and further reading

Jacobs, C., & McEwen, A. (2021). Adapting to the challenges of the global pandemic on genetic counselor education: Evaluating students’ satisfaction with virtual clinical experiences. Journal of genetic counseling30(4), 1074–1083.  

Even better than the real thing (UTS news, Aug 2020) 

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