Health histories can be part of holiday sharing

The surgeon general is encouraging Americans to find out more about their families' medical histories.

By Victoria Stagg Elliott — Posted Nov. 22, 2004

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This Thanksgiving, when family members are gathered around to feast, they may attempt to get more information out of older relatives than just the secret recipe for sweet potato pie. And they might take what they learn to their primary care doctor.

Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, MD, MPH, has declared this year's holiday the first annual National Family History day and is urging families to use the "My Family Health Portrait" software available at no cost from the surgeon general's Web site to gather relatives' medical data. The software then advises patients to take the information to their physicians.

"Knowing your family's medical history can save your life," wrote Dr. Carmona, on the Web site.

The project is the outgrowth of extensive work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies to attempt to harness the increasing knowledge of the human genome to benefit patients.

"The Family History Initiative is meant to be a screening tool," said Paula Yoon, ScD, MPH, team leader for the CDC project. "We're trying to identify the moderate-risk people who are probably the majority of the population and really get them engaged in healthier lifestyles that are going to make a difference."

Those connected with the project acknowledge that right now tools are lacking to help physicians interpret and use the information. Office-based software that includes such protocols has been designed and is going to be tested soon. It is expected to be more widely available next year.

"That's the hard part," said Dr. Yoon.

Doctors working to increase the utility of the family history in medical practice praised these plans for offering the potential to reduce the amount of time needed to collect a good family medical history.

"[It's] so powerful," said Linda E. Pinsky, MD, a general internist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has spoken on this issue at medical conferences. "If we have a way to make the quality information both more accurate and more efficient for the physician to get, I think it'll be a terrific tool."

According to AMA policy, patients have a responsibility to provide a family history that includes information relevant to their own health.

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External links

U.S. surgeon general's Family History Initiative (link)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Family History Public Health Initiative (link)

AMA on the importance of family medical history (link)

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