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Healthy Tips

Why Family History Matters

FAQ for a Family Medicine Physician

Family history is something most people only know generally. You have a rough idea of what runs in your family and certain health concerns, but the details – ages, types, risk factors – may be more foggy. An accurate record of your family medical history, and that of your partner, can be invaluable to you and your primary care provider, allowing him or her to provide the most comprehensive and personalized preventive care.

Monica J. Fudala, MD, a family medicine physician at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital and Grayslake Outpatient Center, answered six frequently asked questions about family history.

1. What is family medical history?

It is a record of health information about a person and his or her closest relatives which is oftentimes gathered from two or three generations – children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. This information is used to recognize genetic disorders and susceptibilities to certain medical conditions that may pose future health risks for an individual. It is a powerful tool that health care providers use especially when laboratory or genetic tests are not available.

2. How can knowing your family history help you lower or address risk of disease?

Risk is unique for each disease and varies from time to time based on age, lifestyle choices and changes in medical history. Your doctor can help personalize a prevention program that is based off your individual risk assessment.

Your doctor may recommend an increased frequency of screenings, such as mammograms or colonoscopies, based on your family history. Another preventive measure is helping to make appropriate lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, getting regular exercise, or adopting a healthier diet. In some instances, genetic testing is important to screen for conditions that have strong genetic linkage or might influence medical decision making. In rare instances, surgery might be appropriate. In some other conditions, knowing your family history may influence your doctor’s choice in prescribing certain medications. For instance, if multiple members in your immediate family have had clots, you may have a genetic predisposition to developing clots. As a result, your physician may take greater care or use caution when using particular medications like oral contraceptive pills.

3. How can your primary care doctor help you understand your family history?

By providing a family history, your doctor can help you differentiate which conditions pose a risk to your own health or which conditions are genetically linked and require closer observation or further testing or screening.

4. What is the best way to gather family medical history?

Talk to your family members about their health concerns and when they occurred. A family gathering is usually a good time to do so. The Surgeon General recently named Thanksgiving Day as Family History Day, since many family members are gathered together at the same time. It is a great opportunity to talk to your family and learn more about their health history.

5. Who is responsible for storing family history and what is the best way to store it?

Your doctor can store your family medical history in an electronic health record (EHR). In this way, information can be stored and passed along even if you decide to change physicians in the future. However, you can also gather and store your family medical information as well. The best way is to get a detailed history of first, second and three degree relatives in a family tree or a pedigree. Information can be obtained from family discussions or more accurately, from obtaining medical records or death certificates. Since information can change, it is important to keep it up to date and share with your doctor regularly.

6. What should your family history record include?

Your records should include family members’ names and their relationships to patient such as maternal grandmother, mother, sister, their current ages (or age of death) and ethnicities. In addition to which conditions they may have or have had, the record should also include the age of onset.

These conditions in particular may be inherited and should be noted:

Consulting your family’s medical history can also be an important step before starting a family of your own. Learn more with this article on the role of family history in pregnancy planning.