November 17, 2004

National Trend of "Health Family Trees"

When U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona spoke with his colleauge Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, both realized an emergent need for comprehensive family health histories created by patients themselves. As research identifies a prominent genetic role in more and more chronic conditions, ranging from heart disease to schizophrenia, it is becoming increasingly more important for both patients and doctors to have current family history information at hand.

In response to this need, Carmona, Collins, and colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services launched a free web-based program to assist patients in tracking and documenting their family medical histories. They hope that patients will become better informed through the creation of their own family trees (which often involves discussions with extended family), and that doctors will be better able to determine what kind of specific tests and care are needed for which patients.

Carmona has announced that the program is part of the first annual National Family History Day, which will now share a date with Thanksgiving.

Although it can be difficult to amass all the information necessary to generate a complete family tree - it may involve being overly-persistant with less familiar relatives, dredging up subjects that some would rather let alone - the benefits of knowing a comprehensive family health history are indisputable.

"Knowing your family medical history can help the health professionals you see to determine if you should be offered medical screening that would not normally be conducted," said Robin Bennett, a genetics counselor and manager of the Medical Genetics Clinics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The new software tool, entitled "My Family Health Portrait", is available for free downloading at The program incorporates information (entered by the user) about the occurence of several genetically-based conditions in grandparents, parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The outcome is a family tree that shows kin relationships as well as the existence of medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (indicated by shaded symbols). In addition to these diseases, the user can choose to enter additional information about general patterns of health, psychiatric problems (such as depression or schizophrenia), birth defects, allergies, dental problems, health-related habits such as smoking or substance abuse, and vision/hearing problems. All this information is incorporated into the final family tree.

Dr. Richard Imirowicz, a child and adolescenet psychiatrist, indicates that it is helpful when patients share comprehensive knowledge about their family medical history with him. "It's rare for families to bring in a medical history, but it would be welcomed," he said. "The more information we get, the better."

For a full news report about the software program, see "Tracing Your Health Roots" (Nov 16 2004) in the Washington Post ( Viewing this article may require free user registration.


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