Creating a Family Health History

A family health history can go a long way toward helping you and your family stay healthy for generations to come.

While visiting her obstetrician for a routine check-up, Monica* was asked to fill out a new form about her family’s medical history. She recounted an uncle with stomach cancer and another uncle with bladder cancer. In addition, she had a cousin in her late 30s who was diagnosed with colon cancer and another cousin, also in her late 30s, who had breast cancer.

Based on the information Monica provided, her doctor suggested that one of the uncles who was diagnosed with cancer get tested for Lynch Syndrome, a rare inherited condition that increases a family’s risk of colon cancer and other cancers. If the uncle tested positive for the Lynch Syndrome gene, then the doctor recommended other family members get tested, as well.

Monica had never been asked to provide her extended family’s medical history before, so her doctor’s advice caught her completely off-guard. “I didn’t have any perspective on what kind of health issues are common in families,” Monica says. “So an outside viewpoint was helpful.”

Monica’s story is not uncommon. This could be one reason the Surgeon General enacted National Family History Day, which encourages families to set aside time during gatherings to discuss and write down the health problems that are common to them. The Surgeon General has maintained for years that learning about your family’s health history could help ensure a longer, healthier future together.

Begin the Conversation

There are a few ways to approach compiling a thorough family health history. If you have grandparents who are still alive, they might be a good place to start, suggests emergency medicine physician Eileen Bobek, M.D. “Many times, a grandparent will have valuable health information that goes back generations, but they’ve never had occasion to share it with family members because no one ever asked.”

You can supplement this information with family documents, such as family trees, baby books and obituaries – or public records, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates. Talking with your parents, siblings and other relatives should help fill in the gaps.

“More information is better,” says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a family practitioner, who suggests that when approaching family members, it might be helpful to bring them your doctor’s patient intake form. “The process of actually filling out the paperwork will help family members start thinking about their own health.”

Ask the Right Questions

Referring to a medical history form when you speak to relatives will also help frame the conversation in terms of which chronic conditions or diseases you should pay special attention to and which past health issues might have an impact on future generations.

Gilboa goes through this form with each new patient and asks for detailed information about things like major health issues and chronic illnesses within the family. If grandparents or parents are deceased, she asks what they died of and at what age. She also inquires about whether there is a history of depression, cancer, arthritis, diabetes or heart disease. “A family health history is not a perfect roadmap,” Gilboa says. “But it is a good predictor of medical issues you may have and informs not only what might happen, but what is happening.”

In the case of an emergency situation, having access to your family’s medical history can be critical. “If a person in his 20s comes in to the ER complaining of chest pains, I am going to treat that patient very differently if there is a known family history of early heart attacks, for example,” Bobek says.

An emergency situation is also a prime example of why it’s important for several family members to know the family’s health history. If an ER patient is critical or unconscious, he or she may not be able to provide a medical history to hospital staff.

Store for Safe-Keeping

If you want to capture and preserve your health history, the Surgeon General’s secure website, “My Family Health Portrait” (http://familyhistory.hhs.gov), is an excellent resource.  This website allows you to enter medical history information, then print and disseminate copies to your doctor and family members. You also can save and update the information on the site as needed.

If you have elderly relatives or relatives with a long history of hospitalizations, allergies or medications, Bobek suggests asking them to prepare a brief, one-page medical history and to let a family member know where to find it. “Coming in to the ER can be stressful, so it’s easy for people to forget some of this crucial information,” she says. You then can use this document when compiling your family’s health history.

Patients also can work with their doctors directly to create a comprehensive health history. Gilboa sits at her computer and makes a record of the family history as she and her patient talk through it. “Your health history not only may be an indication of what you might catch, but it affects your overall wellness and health,” she says.

Monica is grateful to her doctor for uncovering what might be a serious genetic issue for her family. “Bringing this to my uncle’s attention will help his kids and grandkids, enabling them to be tested for these cancers earlier and take preventive measures,” she says.

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