How to Assemble a Family Health History That Can Save Your Life

It can be a powerful medical tool — especially now

David H. Freedman
Elemental
Published in
6 min readApr 14, 2020

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Photo: teekid/Getty Images

AAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19.” That’s an important fact, because it provides someone with an underlying condition an opportunity to take extra precautions to avoid exposure to the virus and, if infected, to alert physicians to the elevated danger.

Of course, that assumes you know if you have an underlying condition, which is not a given — one in 13 Americans have a health condition that has never been diagnosed, according to the Mayo Clinic.

One of the best ways to reduce unwelcome health surprises in this time of Covid-19, and all other times, is to arm your physician with a comprehensive family health history.

Everyone’s primary care physician asks patients early on about their family health history. “It’s pretty much essential for every patient who walks through the door,” says Aleks Rajkovic, MD, PhD, chief genetics officer at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center.

But Rajkovic adds that a patient’s family history will only be as useful as the level of detail of the information in it. “We often find that when we go over the family history in patients’ records, significant elements have been omitted,” he says. One study found that less than four percent of medical records contained a complete enough family history to assess the patient’s risk of cancer, heart disease, and other major diseases.

Filling in what’s missing from your family health history could prove critical to heading off problems — and in some cases could even give doctors a much better chance of saving your life.

Here’s what experts say you need to do to put together a good history.

“When a patient says to me they feel weird about picking up the phone to ask a relative what kind of cancer someone had, I tell them they have to get over it — this is their life.”

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David H. Freedman
Elemental

David is a Boston-based science writer. The most recent of his five books is WRONG, about the problems with medical research and other expertise.