Monday, December 22, 2008

Relatively Speaking – Developing a Family Medical History

It is amazing where you will run into family history related materials. Today I was grocery shopping at my neighborhood Publix. I always go to the advertisement display to grab their sales ad, store magazine and any coupons they might have setting out. As I went through their store magazine I ran across an article titled “Relative-ly Healthy”. You can read the article on their website at This article discussed the importance of learning about your family medical history. This time of year when we get together to celebrate the holidays is a perfect time to work on gathering the information we need to compile a family medical history. 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 96 percent of Americans believe it is important to know their family history, but only one-third have ever tried to gather and record this information. Many people feel uncomfortable asking for this kind of personal information. If this describes you then maybe you can blame it on your doctor. You can always say, “My doctor wants me to ask so he can take better care of me.” 

Another problem that may arise during the collection of this information is a denial or refusal of some family members to discuss their personal medical histories. Some families may associate shame with certain disorders or may have painful memories associated with a condition. You will have to take this into consideration as you prepare. Make sure you explain your purpose, emphasize that this information is useful in determining whether you, or other family members, may be prone to certain conditions. Give them options on filling out the information. Some people may be more comfortable doing it face-to-face while other might prefer to fill out a form. Start with general questions then lead to more detailed personal questions as they become more comfortable. Be a good listener, you may get more information on other family members by just listening to them talk about their histories. And most of all, respect their privacy. 

As genealogists and family history researchers we may already know something about our family medical histories. We may have come across information in death certificates, newspaper articles, or old letters and journals. Bring this information along with you when you do the interviews, it may spur someone’s memory. Once you have gathered the information, you should add it to your family tree or use a tool such as My Family Health Portrait which can be found at the US Surgeon Generals website at

If you need an idea of the questions you should ask, I have developed a family medical history form that is available in Excel format on my website at You can select the family member and fill the form out on your computer or have the family member fill it out and e-mail it back to you. Once you have gathered the information you should provide copies to your health-care providers as well as to your relatives so they can provide copies to their health-care providers.

Try it out and learn more about your family as well as providing you a better idea of your chances of developing various diseases. 

1 comment:

Colleen Johnson, CMJ Office said...

Great topic and post. I wish that my family knew their medical history. I have since discovered several family malodies that are not new to our family. It's enlightening.