The Best Kept Secret in Health Care

The Best Kept Secret in Health Care

November 2010

“Collecting your family health history is, indeed, the best kept secret in health care,” according to Dr. Charis Eng, a cancer geneticist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Genomic Medicine Institute. Dr. Eng says, “I view family health histories as back to the future.”

Holiday gatherings can be a good chance to gather the information, as can reunions or even funerals. However you do it, get the scoop on both sides of the family. Researchers found that women not only know less about the health of their paternal relatives, they tend to dismiss the threat of breast cancer if it’s on Dad’s side. “It’s a risk no matter what,” says Dr. Wendy Rubinstein of Chicago’s North Shore University Health System.

Because genes seldom are destiny, a family health tree also should reflect shared environmental or lifestyle factors that can further affect an inherited risk, says James O’Leary, of the nonprofit Genetic Alliance. He advises, “Collecting your family health history isn’t just about knowing; it’s about making healthy choices.”

What should be included in a family medical history? Going back about three generations (to your grandparents or great-grandparents), try to collect details on every direct family member who has died and the cause of death. Also, document the medical conditions of all family members, including the age at which they were first diagnosed, their treatment,and if they ever had surgery. Important medical conditions to document include cancer, heart disease, alcoholism, stroke, birth defects, and others.

For family members with known medical problems, make notes on their overall health, including if they smoked or were overweight. What were their exercise habits? If your family members came from a different country, make note of that as well, as some medical conditions have possible ethnic roots.

The U.S. Surgeon General operates a free Web site ( that helps people create a family health history and share it electronically with relatives and their doctor. Keep in mind that the format and questions don’t have to be perfect. The more information you gather, in whatever format is easiest for you, the more informed you’ll be about your medical heritage. You may save your life or the lives of your children.

If you can’t learn more about your family’s health history–adoption, uncooperative family, etc.–be sure to follow standard screening recommendations and see your doctor for a physical on a regular basis.



“Tracing Your Family Medical History: Are You at Risk?” Kimberly Powell, Genealogy; and “Family Health History: ‘Best Kept Secret’ in Care,” via InteliHealth, November 9, 2010