In the 1980s, the field of genetic counseling grew rapidly. With an estimated 50 million Americans having genetic conditions, and some 5,000 diseases having been identified as being genetic in origin, the demand for services continued to grow. Over the course of the decade SLCHGP would evolve to meet these needs—and provide leadership to a growing field.
In 1981, the American Board of Medical Genetics offered the first certification exam for genetic counselors. To help students prepare, SLCHGP offered a four-day intensive review course, supported by an $8,000 grant from March of Dimes. Of the 600 genetic counselors who took the December 1981 certification test, one quarter of them reviewed at SLC.
The certification tests and the formation of the National Society of Genetic Counselors in 1981 lent greater legitimacy to the field. By 1982, some 389 men and women had been trained as genetic counselors—215 of them at SLCHGP—and earned between $16,000 and $32,000 a year. The 39 states that had received funding from the federal government had recruited another 100 genetic counselors. Graduates began to be selective about where they would work and what role they would play in the field. And as overseas graduates returned to their home countries, SLCHGP-trained counselors began to take on important roles in Canada and Israel.
While application numbers to SLCHGP were strong, there was a troubling lack of representatives among U.S. minorities—individuals who came from communities in which some genetic-based conditions were more prevalent. To increase minority representation, SLCHGP in 1982 applied for and received Department of Education scholarships, which provided living expense stipends and tuition for minority students. And in 1984, the program established a Minority Advisory Committee to extend recruitment and outreach.
The program continued to evolve as the field of medical genetics expanded. Richard Lent, Ph.D., began teaching a course in the Biochemistry of Genetic Diseases, which became a requirement. Grants from the JM Foundation in 1984 supported a curricular review and a summer internship initiative. In 1984-5, the March of Dimes-Birth Defects Foundation made a grant to help the program develop genetic counseling guidelines. The findings of that workshop were eventually published in 1989 as a casebook, Genetic Counseling Guidelines: Principles in Action. It was the first effort to document the goals and method of the genetic counseling profession.
Throughout the 1980s, the program grew more academically rigorous. In 1988, the program started a four-session AIDS-related counseling workshop. Also in that year, second year students were required to sit for an oral exam for the first time. Examiners were prominent geneticists and faculty of the program. The following year, the program introduced a thesis requirement. And to facilitate greater student interest in research, a Journal Club was formed, led by several different geneticists in the New York area.
As the director of the nation’s first human genetics program, Joan Marks played a role in helping the field grow. Throughout her tenure, Marks served on NIH site visit teams, worked with insurance companies to establish reimbursement policies for genetic services, discussed policy issues with public officials, constantly evangelized for the field at seminars and organizations and served as a board member of the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her role on the national scene brought increased visibility both to SLCGHP and to the field of master's-level genetic counseling.
By the end of the 1980s, genetic counseling had indeed gained higher visibility and credibility. The July 1989 issue of Working Woman identified "Genetic Counselor" as #13 on a list of the 25 hottest careers. And SLCHGP administration reported 100 percent employment of its graduates. With 20 years of experience under its belt, SLCHGP was poised to lead the field in continued expansion.