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Why Knowing Your Family Health History is Important

December 09, 2016

Quick question: Do you know your family’s health history? A family health history is a record of any health conditions and treatments you, your partner and everyone in both of your families have had. Knowing that history can help inform future health care decisions and treatments for you and your dependents.

“It’s helpful for the patient to know their family history and to know what to look out for, for themselves and their children,” Jennifer Wessels, M.D., BJC Medical Group in West County told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But it also helps the doctor to be aware of [a patient’s] risk factors and develop a plan for screening. Basic screening tests can be given to every patient, but family history can help pinpoint things.”

Because knowing your family history is so important, the office of the U.S. Surgeon General has developed the “My Family Health Portal” tool to make the collecting of family information less tedious. The portal is free and no information is shared with the U.S. government or saved on the site.

A family health history is a record of any health conditions and treatments you, your partner and everyone in both of your families have had.

Your family health history should include:

  1. Your health conditions
  2. Each of your parent’s health conditions
  3. Each of your partner’s health conditions

A health history can also help parents plan their child’s health care before he or she is born.

“For instance, if you were born with a heart defect, your baby may be at increased risk of having a heart defect, as well,” says Dr. Siobhan Dolan, medical advisor to The March of Dimes and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. “Or, if both you and your partner are carriers of sickle cell trait or cystic fibrosis, your chances of having a child affected with one of these conditions is one in four.”

Here are some tips for creating a medical history:

Employ existing forms and tools. It can be difficult to get family members to talk about specific health histories. Consider printing the free form from and providing it to relatives to return to you. The form also lists links to other websites, like the government’s Family Health Portal, that you may find useful.

Expect sensitive conversations. Some people are hesitant to put health information into writing. Start a private conversation with the family member and explain that a history will help you lead a healthier life. Also have a plan to keep the information private.

Consider expanded carrier testing. Those who are adopted or don't have access to parents’ medical histories may consider expanded carrier testing. This testing determines risks for inherited genetic conditions. Your doctor can help guide that decision.

Continually update your health history. Track medical exams and treatments, test results and prescription and over-the-counter medications you take. Consider your family medical history a living document.