Seven tips for a better family health history

Nov 20, 2017, 11:15 AM by Dr. Michael Thanh Nguyen, assistant professor of Internal Medicine and medical director of Internal Medicine at the UTMB Multispecialty Center and Stark Diabetes Clinic
Health History

As you attend family gatherings this holiday season, don’t just ask your loved ones to pass the turkey. Ask them about their health history. It’s the perfect time to gather important information that you and your doctors can use to create a plan for preventing disease. Follow these tips for compiling a detailed family medical history:

  1. Start with those closest to you. First-degree relatives such as your parents and siblings are the most important to gather information about. Gather information about them first, and then expand your search to include grandparents and aunts and uncles. If you are adopted, you might consider checking with the agency or organization that facilitated the adoption to find out what medical records are available.
  2. Find your family’s historian. Oftentimes, our eldest family members are the best sources for obtaining history. Many people may suffer short-term memory loss, but their recall of past details can be remarkable. Even if the actual diagnosis is not known, recalling a family member who had “some type of stomach cancer or blood disorder” can be useful.
  3. Make it fun. Keep the conversation lighthearted and remind everyone that it is for everyone’s benefit no matter how embarrassing or personal. If necessary, talk to your relatives about health history in private. They may open up more one-on-one than at the dinner table.
  4. Use a negative situation to make a positive impact. Unfortunately, the only time some families meet is during hardship or funerals. Use that time wisely to have meaningful, open and frank conversations regarding your family health history. See if anyone else is at risk for the cause of illness or death that prompted the gathering. For example, discuss whether anyone is dealing with untreated high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.
  5. Pass it around. Don’t lock your family health history up in a drawer; make it a “living document” that can be updated continually. The Surgeon General’s “My Family Health Portrait” tool ( is a good option. Once you’ve done your part, you have the option of sharing it with other family members, if you wish.
  6. Don’t overthink it. Give your doctor all health history you gather, no matter how small the detail may seem. Let your physician be the judge. For example, you may not have sought treatment for a skin rash five years ago, but are now having a burning pain in the same area. Those details may prompt your provider to discover you have a recurrent bout of shingles and get you treated much more quickly.
  7. Update your provider via an online patient portal (such as MyChart), letter or printout to be given at your next visit. This could be especially meaningful if the information you send now could relate to a problem you presented to your doctor’s office months ago. For example, if you have a sibling who recently suffered a heart attack, it could prompt your provider to revisit symptoms such as shortness of breath or fatigue you had complained about at a previous checkup. To sign up for UTMB MyChart, go to