The end of the year is a time filled with traditions. Passing them on to our children and grandchildren is one of the most treasured legacies we leave them. Along with the holiday recipes and rituals, the health history of your family is another part of your family heritage that should be shared.
I can't imagine a better gift to give or receive from those we love than a family health record. It is part of our family lineage, like curly hair and short toes. And the best thing about it is it doesn't cost a penny to compile, but once done, is a tradition that can be carried on for generations to come.
How to Gather the Information?
Any occasion when the extended family is together is an ideal time to collect the annual health history of your family. The U.S. Surgeon General's office provides an easy, interactive online tool called "My Family Health Portrait" that is a great way to start. If you have a computer or tablet, each person in the family can enter his or her own data, or the young folks can assist those who aren't tech savvy. And it's available in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian to be as user friendly as possible.
The part I like best about this program is that it creates a family tree that illustrates how each member is connected through birth and marriage and where there may be genetic links for certain illnesses or other common traits that put you at high risk.
Who Has Access to the Information?
The data collected about each family member can be selectively shared with others in the family and with the Electronic Health Records (EHR) used by physicians and medical facilities. Even if all of your doctors do not yet use EHRs, you can provide them with the information you've collected to make your personal medical records more complete and more consistent.
The information is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), so neither the Surgeon General's Office nor any other government entity has access to the information you provide. It is contained on a secure website and only available to those with whom you choose to share it.
What Information is Needed?
To begin building your own family health record, you will want to gather the names, date of birth and death, birth place, gender, and race of three generations of relatives. Start with both sets of your biological grandparents and their siblings, your biological parents and their siblings, and your own siblings and cousins. If your grandchildren decide to build their family tree, you will be on top of theirs.
The next step is recording the types of diseases (heart disease, diabetes, hypertension) or genetic disorders (cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis) that each person may have, or had, and at what age those conditions began. For female relatives, a history of the number of pregnancies and birth outcomes is also valuable.
How Can You Use the Information?
Many factors influence our chances of developing a disease, such as smoking, diet and physical activity. Having a relative with a particular medical condition does not mean we will automatically get it, too. But knowing the incidence of certain diseases in our family lineage can help us make lifestyle choices to lower our risk factors and get regular checkups to detect early warning signs of a problem.
The data collected can also relieve fears about medical problems that may have had their origins in environmental exposure shared by family members, not genetics, or conditions that are now treatable.
Are you ready to make family health records part of your family heritage?