Disease Prevention: Know Your Family’s Health History

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The Office of the Surgeon General has developed an online tool, “My Family Health History”, to help people organize past medical issues that run in families. The impetus stems from the recognition that common diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease are preventable if you know you are at risk. Survey statistics show that only 33% of Americans have taken the time to gather health related information from their family, yet 96% feel it is important.

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) are also involved in the program. The site is free to access, and no information is stored. Once you enter information at My Family Health History, you can discuss needed testing and risk factor modification with your physician. The tool prints out a graph that tracks disease throughout generations.

A study by Acheson shows that physicians historically spend less than 2.5 minutes during an office visit obtaining a family history. There is a definite shift in healthcare toward disease prevention. Physicians are encouraged to incorporate genomic information into their practice, and we, as patients might expect a more individualized approach to healthcare. One of the best examples of the value of genomic medicine is recognizing women who are at risk for breast cancer. Early intervention is shown to be effective for breast cancer prevention. Some women opt for mastectomy, while others opt for intensive screening and frequent check-ups. You can view: Prevalence and Relative Risk to Family History of Selected Diseases for an idea of odds ratio (OR) and relative risk (RR) of diseases, based on family history.

Your doctor has been challenged to obtain your family history to find ways of incorporating that knowledge toward disease prevention. However, we should all take responsibility by obtaining and sharing information with our healthcare provider. Personalized genetic profiles may become common in the next decade. Even if does seem frightening to be labeled “high risk” for disease, we should all consider the benefits of dodging illnesses that have a huge impact on our lives and the lives of those we love through awareness of our individual predisposition to disease.


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