When you gather with family for Thanksgiving this year, show up with something everyone will appreciate: your family’s health history. In 2004, then U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona began a campaign called the U.S. Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative to coincide with Thanksgiving—a time when many families gather together. Healthcare providers and others in the health profession have known for years the significance of knowing one’s personal and family history. Now, more than ever, we understand the strong correlation between genetics and health. Unfortunately, many patients have very limited knowledge of their family health history.
As our society has become more mobile, many of us rarely see our relatives, let alone know what is going on with their health. We probably know our grandpa died decades ago, but many don’t know he had heart disease or cancer. However, rare is the patient today that has not been asked to complete a medical history form at their health professional’s office. This important information is used by your provider to assess your risks for certain conditions and diseases. It may also be used to help determine whether you should undergo specific diagnostic tests and their frequency.
Based on your medical history, your healthcare provider may also recommend particular genetic tests or offer insight into conditions you may pass on to your children. Knowing your family health history can also help guide your healthcare provider to customize your healthcare plan. Most healthcare providers these days are adopting electronic medical records or EMR for their offices, and completing a thorough family health history is a significant portion of this record.
If your family health history reveals certain cancers and/or heart disease or indicates that diabetes runs in your family, you can partner with your provider to minimize your risks of getting these diseases yourself by adjusting your lifestyle. Working to maintain a healthy weight with proper diet and exercise routine may be even more essential if you know you have a genetic predisposition for these diseases.
Our genes are not necessarily our destiny; there’s much we can do to mitigate our risks factors. The first step, however is knowing what those risks factors might be. The holidays can be an ideal time to discuss such matters with our family members. The Department of Health and Human Services has developed a useful tool to help you compile your family health history at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov. The online tool guides you through a series of questions which allows you to enter and save your family’s health history. It’s available in several languages and organizes your information in a family tree format and is available for printing. More recently The Human Genome Research Institute in 2008 added its stature in the field of genetics to adopt as part of its mission, a program to encourage communities to utilize the Surgeon General’s Family History tools. Medical researchers realize that genetic innovation in the prevention and treatment of disease works best with patients who are well acquainted with their personal and family’s medical history.
Using an online tool or simply writing down your personal and immediate family’s history and sharing with your extended family can help to start a dialogue. Family members, who might be reluctant to talk about their personal health might be encouraged by seeing you take steps to share with others. Sometimes older relatives may feel discussing health history is taboo. Perhaps engaging them with grandchildren or younger family members might encourage them to open up. The holidays are a wonderful time to gather together with loved ones and share great meals, tell family stories, and makes new memories. Take a few minutes to share your family’s health history with each other. Everyone will thank you next time they need to fill out that paperwork at their doctor’s appointment.
Dr. Hardy practices obstetrics and gynecology at Atlantic Ob/Gyn with locations in Va. Beach and Chesapeake. Please call 757-463-1234 or visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.