family health history

Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.

A family health history or family medical history, sometimes called a medical family tree or pedigree is a record of illnesses and medical conditions prevalent among family members. Similar to the traditional family tree, the family health history is a visualization of relationships among members of a family that also includes information for each person regarding illness or disease, age of onset, causes of death, and other relevant family health information. A family medical history can help your doctor identify patterns of illness within your family that might be relevant to your personal health.

You do not have to be a genealogist to complete a family health history -- it's a simple process of asking questions of living family members and, when more information is desired, checking death records, obituaries or other family documents to determine the cause of death, age of disease onset, etc. Holidays and family reunions may provide a good opportunity for gathering information, talking to those who may remember details about the health of deceased family members. However, not every one is comfortable disclosing personal health information, so sensitivity and respect for privacy is key.

Additional information, samples of medical family trees, and a list of commonly used symbols for pedigrees can be found on the web sites of the American Medical Association and the National Society of Genetic Counselors. The office of the U.S. Surgeon General offers an electronic tool called My Family Health Portrait that provides a template for inputting information and generates a medical family tree for you. It is available in English and Spanish as an online tool or downloadable software.

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