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Your Family Health History May Define Your Future

Private: Heather Joanne Baer, ScD
Contributor Heather Joanne Baer, ScD

Every November since 2004, the Surgeon General has encouraged Americans to discuss and record health conditions shared among their family members.

Your family health history is important because it may impact your risk for developing cancer and other chronic diseases. For example, if one of your family members had cancer, your primary care doctor needs to know. Being able to identify an increased risk for certain conditions can help you and your doctor take action to keep you healthy. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital have found that patients who used a web-based tool to collect health information were more likely to have their family history documented.

“Primary care clinicians can play a critical role in documenting a patient’s family history and assessing the patient’s risk factors for diseases like cancer,” explains Dr. Heather Baer, an associate epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care at the Brigham. “However, most clinicians see a large number of patients, have limited time during patient visits, and may lack adequate systems for collecting and analyzing this important information.”

How Research Played a Role

The Brigham research team, lead by Dr. Baer, set out to study whether the use of a web-based tool in a primary care office would be an effective way to easily collect health history information from patients. Researchers asked patients who had new patient visits or annual exams, throughout three primary care practices, to fill out the web-based risk appraisal tool on a laptop computer in the waiting room immediately before their visit. Two other primary care practices, where patients did not use the tool, were studied for comparison.

Reviewing Family Health History
Talking with family members about health history can help establish your risk for certain diseases.

A total of 996 patients filled out the tool while waiting for their appointment. The tool asked patients about their family history of cancer, as well as lifestyle factors, such as diet, physical activity, and smoking. At the end of the questionnaire, patients received a report summarizing their risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Information on family history of cancer was sent to patients’ electronic health records (EHRs) for doctors to view; if accepted by the doctor, the information was used to trigger reminders for the doctor about colon and breast cancer screening.

“We found that 10.6 percent of patients who used the tool had new information on family history of cancer entered in the EHR within 30 days after their visit, compared to less than one percent of control patients,” explains Dr. Baer. “This type of risk assessment tool may be useful for collecting information on family history and lifestyle factors and may also help increase communication between physicians and patients about their risk.”

How You Can Get Started

The good news is that you don’t need to be enrolled in a research study to compile your health information. The Surgeon General has created an online tool called My Family Health Portrait to help you collect and document your family’s health history.

Private: Heather Joanne Baer, ScD
Heather Joanne Baer, ScD

Heather J. Baer, ScD, is an Associate Epidemiologist in the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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No matter where you are on your healthy journey, our experts can help you achieve your goals. From questions about routine wellness checkups and common health conditions to family health history and genetic testing, we’re here for you. Read more articles about general health.