Nearly every American believes that knowledge of family history is important to their medical care, yet only a third attempt to gather it.

Last month, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson launched the Family History Initiative to encourage Americans to learn more about their families’ health histories as a way of promoting personal health and preventing disease.

“With this new family health history tool, we are entering the next generation of prevention,” Secretary Thompson said. “In addition to healthy eating and exercising, we know that technology and research can also prevent and treat disease before the disease becomes debilitating. The miracle of the human genome provides new hope for millions of Americans and a new path to health for all of us.”

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LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

“The holiday season brings families together,” says Armand E. Sabitoni, LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and Labor Co-Chairman of the LHSFNA. “It’s a good time to collect important family health history information that can benefit everyone in the family.”

To help gather this important information, HHS released a new, free, computer program that organizes important health information into a printout to take to a health care professional to help determine whether a patient is at higher risk for disease. The printout can also be placed in a patient’s medical record.

The new tool, called “ My Family Health Portrait,” can be downloaded here.

“The bottom line is that knowing your family history can save your life,” Dr. Carmona said. “Millions of dollars in medical research, equipment and knowledge can’t give us the information that this simple tool can. When a health care professional is equipped with a patient’s family health history, he or she can easily assess the inherent risk factors and begin tests or treatment even before any disease is evident.”

Family history is by no means a new concept in medical evaluations. Every physician learns that it is a valuable clinical tool to know what diseases to watch for in patients.

“ Family history can be a window into a person’s genome,” said Francis S. Collins, M.D. Ph.D., Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, one of the 27 institutes and centers at the National Institutes of Health and a leader of the now-completed Human Genome Project. “In the future, tests resulting from the Human Genome Project will make it possible to identify the glitches we all carry in our genes, glitches that increase our susceptibility to common illnesses. Until then, tracking illnesses from one generation of a family to the next can help doctors infer the illnesses for which we are at risk and, thus, enable them to create personalized disease-prevention plans.”

With the ever-increasing complexity of health evaluation, gathering adequate family history information is becoming more and more of a problem. Mounting pressures have decreased the amount of time that doctors and nurses spend with their patients, and, when doctors or nurses attempt to collect a family health history, patients frequently do not know the details of what runs in their families. The Surgeon General’s Family Health Initiative addresses these problems by helping people gather and record the information before going to their medical appointments.

The “My Family Health Portrait” tool guides users through a series of screens that helps them compile, for each family member, information about six common diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. In addition, individuals are able to add conditions not on the list. After information is collected about grandparents, parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles and cousins, the tool creates a graphic print-out that organizes the information into a diagram for use by a health care professional to better individualize diagnosis, treatment and prevention plans.

“ We are proud to collaborate on this project because clearly the public is eager for a tool to help them collect and organize their family health history,” said Muin Khoury, M.D., Ph.D., director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention. “It is our hope as families gather this holiday season, they’ll take the time to learn – and record – their families’ health histories so that they can continue to have years of family gatherings together.”