Your Family History, Your Health

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November 29, 2016


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Science has proven that our overall health and the risks for developing certain conditions mirror those of our family members. And it seems the significance of these genetic links have finally sunk in. A recent survey reported by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found that 96 percent of Americans understand the importance of knowing their family history.

However, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have tried to write down their family’s health history.

Online Family Health History Assessment

This holiday season, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., is urging people to take time during their family gatherings to discuss their health history. His office released an online tool, My Family Health Portrait, to record health information that can be used by healthcare providers to manage risks and plan treatments.

Importance of Knowing Family History

“Family history gives a better perspective of what might be going on when a patient seeks medical attention,” said Jennifer Young, M.D., a Baptist Health Medical Group primary care physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. “It can help us more quickly diagnose a patient’s problem and make plans moving forward in terms of screening tools and treatment options.”

Dr. Young says the Surgeon General’s online tool, if used as expected, could provide valuable information to doctors and hospitals. She envisions a time in the future when new patients will send in their health assessment before coming to the doctor’s office or hospital. That would allow healthcare providers to review the history for any red flags that need to be evaluated.

Primary Relatives

“We can use family health histories to assess a person’s risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, among others,” she said. “For instance, if a primary relative – a mother, father, sibling or child – has an early onset of a disease, that’s a red flag we might need to screen for that disease.”

Changes to Screening Guidelines

Dr. Young notes that family histories also provide insight when more than one family member develops a disease or combinations of diseases.

“We know that genes play a definite role in disease risk and development,” she said. “Genetic mutations, as seen in cancer, can give us clues as to when we should begin screening for certain types of cancer.”

She uses colon cancer as an example of how a family history changes the normal screening protocol. “If a primary relative has been diagnosed with colon cancer at 55, we would recommend that his or her relatives begin regular colonoscopies at 40, even though the general guidelines for average-risk individuals call for screening to begin at 50,” she said.

Missing Pieces

Dr. Young admits that obtaining a full family history can be difficult, especially when families are estranged or patients have been adopted. Additionally, some family members may be reluctant to share their health history. But, she says any pieces of information that can be accounted for, should be. For example, if a parent’s history is not available, but an uncle’s, aunt’s or grandparent’s is, some valuable clues can be learned from knowing the health history of those “secondary relatives.”

And even if you know your family’s history, it’s best to keep a written record of it, Dr. Young suggests.

“It’s not always easy to remember the details of when your family member was diagnosed with a certain disease,” she said. “So having this online assessment completed to the best of your knowledge can be extremely valuable to us, as your medical team.”

Future Uses of Online Family Histories

Dr. Young applauds the development of the My Family Health Portrait and hopes that we heed Dr. Murthy’s suggestion to take time this holiday season to find out more about our family members’ health history. She also looks forward to a day when such an assessment can be linked with patients’ electronic health records, so that doctors have this important information at their fingertips when they meet with patients.

“It’s best to have as much information as possible when planning prevention, diagnosis and treatment, and this tool will go a long way toward achieving that,” she said. “I’m hopeful people will use it.”

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