When you visit a new health care provider, your new patient paperwork often includes questions about not just your medical history but also that of your close family members. Maybe you have sped past this section, filling in whatever happens to come to mind in the moment and perhaps inadvertently leaving out a few details. When your family medical history is incomplete, however, your providers could be missing important information that would empower them to better care for your health.
How do doctors use my family medical history?
The details you provide about your relatives and their major health events can help doctors better assess your risk of specific illnesses. By understanding what types of conditions you may have a genetic predisposition to developing, your doctors can better target their recommendations for lifestyle changes and medical screenings as well as diagnostic testing and medications. They can also identify conditions that you may pass on to your children.
What is important to know about my family medical history?
What people should I include?
A basic medical history includes information about your parents, their parents and siblings, your siblings, and your children. Information that you learn about more distant relatives is less likely to be useful, but it’s wise to keep a record of it in case it can be helpful in the future. Doctors don’t typically ask about family members who are not related by blood, so it’s not appropriate to include them in a basic medical history.
Many conditions can have environmental causes, however, so information about others close to you can sometimes be relevant. For example, if stepsiblings in the same home develop asthma, a doctor may want to look at an environmental cause, such as local air pollution or smoking in the home.
What information should I gather?
For each relative listed above, compile as much of the following information as you’re able. For each condition listed, get the best estimate you can of when it was diagnosed. You may need to make some calls to fill in gaps in your knowledge. Not everyone is able to access this much information about their family medical history, but the more you can gather, the better your providers will be able to target your care based on your genetic profile.
Major Health Events
Major health events that are important to list are those that have a genetic component. For this reason, basic family medical histories ask about specific illnesses, such heart disease and heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cancer. Include any serious or long-term medical condition that you’re aware of, however, unless you know that it is unrelated to genetics (for example, infectious illness or injuries resulting from accidents). If you know of treatments that your family members are receiving or have received for listed conditions and the outcome of these treatments, this can also be useful.
Many mental health conditions can be influenced by genetics, as well. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues, it may be difficult to obtain this information about your relatives—especially those from older generations. If you know or have reason to suspect drug or alcohol dependence or another mental health condition in your family, include this in your history.
Some health conditions are more common among members of specific ethnic groups. Women with Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, for example, have been shown to have a higher prevalence of breast cancer, and people with African or Mediterranean ancestry are more prone to develop sickle cell disease. Including information about your ethnicity in your medical history allows your doctor to be alert to these types of health risks.
Family medical histories also ask for basic information about your relatives, including
- Sex assigned at birth
- Any complications with pregnancies, including miscarriages and birth defects
- Cause of death and age at which it occurred, if applicable
If you have questions about why a particular piece of information is needed or helpful, don’t hesitate to ask your provider’s office. Your information must be kept confidential and used only for approved health-related purposes. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires health care providers to take extra precautions to protect your private health information, including your family history.
Family Health History: Why It’s Important and What You Should Know. Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/family-health-history-day. Updated February 27, 2017. Accessed July 12, 2021.
Family History Checklist: Questions for Relatives. WebMD.com. https://www.webmd.com/health-insurance/family-history. Reviewed June 17, 2020. Accessed July 12, 2021.
Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree. MayoClinic.org. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/medical-history/art-20044961. Published September 4, 2019. Accessed July 12, 2021.
Why are some genetic conditions more common in particular ethnic groups? MedlinePlus.org. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/inheritance/ethnicgroup/. Updated April 19, 2021. Accessed July 12, 2021.