As millions of Americans get together with relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday, U.S. officials are urging them to talk to family members about their health. The goal is to have people compile potentially life-saving information about the diseases that run in their families.
U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona says participation in his new Family History Initiative can be more valuable to an individual’s health "than millions of dollars in medical research, equipment and knowledge." He calls the process "taking a peek into your own genome."
Dr. Carmona has chosen Thanksgiving to be the first annual National Family History Day. Elizabeth Duke of the Department of Health and Human Services says an important question should be on the Thanksgiving menu alongside the turkey and cranberry sauce: "what illnesses have afflicted members of my family?"
Many Americans think about answering that question, Dr. Duke says, "but never really take a disciplined approach to sit down and put it on paper." So, in time for the holiday season, U.S. government web sites are offering a downloadable computer program called My Family Health Portrait, which will help people compile a complete medical history. Officials are also distributing to health centers around the country hundreds of thousands of printed guides in English and Spanish.
Surgeon General Carmona says the information could literally be a lifesaver. For instance, he says, "if you know that breast cancer runs in your family, mothers and daughters should be tested earlier than doctors usually recommend for the general population." Another example, he says, would be "if the men in your family die from heart disease." In that case, he recommends early monitoring for cholesterol and high blood pressure.
Dr. Carmona pointed to a recent survey by the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The research indicated that 96% of Americans thought it would be useful to gather their family’s medical history…but barely one third had ever tried to do so in an organized way.
Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, notes that the nation’s doctors are taught to collect such data. But he says many of them are not compiling the information effectively. One problem is that patients may be unprepared to give their doctors a complete medical history of their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents. But Dr. Collins says physicians may also not have the time to gather the proper data.
"The average length of a doctor’s visit has been shrinking and is now less than 20 minutes," he says. "Time spent taking a three-generation pedigree, which can be quite time-consuming, is generally just not possible to fit into those time constraints."
At the news conference announcing the Family History Initiative, U.S. officials introduced a typical patient. Russell Balmer told reporters that he never paid much attention to his family’s medical history until three months ago, when his son was born. To give "Little Russ" the best chance at a long and healthy life, the new father prepared a Family Health Portrait.
On his side of the family, Mr. Balmer uncovered a history of heart problems and breast cancer that he said he wishes his late parents had told their doctors about. Perhaps they could be here today, he said, "if my parents would have understood the importance of their own medical history in their own lives and they would had taken that information to their physicians early in their life."
On his wife’s side of the family, Mr. Balmer found instances of Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, stroke, and high cholesterol. A doctor is now treating both Mr. Balmer and his wife for high cholesterol. Their pediatrician is keeping on eye on Little Russ.
Mr. Balmer urged Americans to make Thanksgiving their own Family History Day. During holiday reunions, he said, people across the country should "get together with family members, sit down, reminisce about your loved ones and fill out that very important information about your family’s medical history." Then, he said, "encourage each of your family members to take that information to their respective physicians so that proper intervention can be implemented early."