Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Reminder: Thanksgiving Is National Family History Day

Note: This is an updated version of my yearly post on National Family History Day.


Every year since 2004 the Surgeon General of the United States has declared Thanksgiving – a day when families traditionally gather together - as National Family History Day, since it provides an excellent opportunity to ask about and document the medical history of relatives.

Although COVID is still with us (and joined this year by a resurgence of both flu and RSV), family gatherings are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels, and the need to share family medical histories during this difficult time are arguably more important than ever.

But even if your holiday gatherings are conducted on Zoom or Skype this year, it is still possible to create and/or update these crucial family documents.

The CDC and the HHS have a web page devoted to assembling your family history, including a web-based tool to help you collect, display, and print out your family’s health history.

Using these online tools, you can create a basic family medical history with relative ease. For those leery of using such forms, you can simply use them as a guide for creating your own.

But before you can do this, you’ll need to discuss each family member’s medial history. The HHS has some advice on things to consider.

Talk to your family. Write down the names of your close relatives from both sides of the family: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Talk to these family members about what conditions they have or had, and at what age the conditions were first diagnosed. You might think you know about all of the conditions in your parents or siblings, but you might find out more information if you ask.
Ask questions. To find out about your risk for chronic diseases, ask your relatives about which of these diseases they have had and when they were diagnosed. Questions can include:
  • Do you have any chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
  • Have you had any other serious diseases, such as cancer or stroke? What type of cancer?
  • How old were you when each of these diseases or health conditions was diagnosed? (If your relative doesn’t remember the exact age, knowing the approximate age is still useful.)
  • What is your family’s ancestry? From what countries or regions did your ancestors come to the United States?
  • What were the causes and ages of death for relatives who have died?
Record the information and update it whenever you learn new family health history information. My Family Health Portrait, a free web-based tool, is helpful in organizing the information in your family health history. My Family Health Portrait allows you to share this information easily with your doctor and other family members.

Share family health history information with your doctor and other family members. If you are concerned about diseases that are common in your family, talk with your doctor at your next visit. Even if you don’t know all of your family health history information, share what you do know. Family health history information, even if incomplete, can help your doctor decide which screening tests you need and when those tests should start.

If you have a medical condition, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, be sure to let your family members know about your diagnosis. If you have had genetic testing done, share your results with your family members. If you are one of the older members of your family, you may know more about diseases and health conditions in your family, especially in relatives who are no longer living. Be sure to share this information with your younger relatives so that you may all benefit from knowing this family health history information.

(Continue . . . )

As a former paramedic, I am keenly aware of how important it is for everyone to know and have access to their personal and family medical history.

Every day emergency room doctors are faced with patients unable to remember or relay their health history, current medications, or even drug allergies during a medical crisis.

And that can delay and even imperil both diagnosis and treatment. Which is why I always keep an EMERGENCY MEDICAL HISTORY CARD – filled out and frequently updated – in my wallet, and have urged (and have helped) others in my family to do the same.

I addressed this issue at some length in a blog called Those Who Forget Their History . . . . A few excerpts (but follow the link to read the whole thing):

Since you can’t always know, in advance when you might need medical care it is important to carry with you some kind of medical history at all times. It can tell doctors important information about your history, medications, and allergies when you can’t.
Many hospitals and pharmacies provide – either free, or for a very nominal sum – folding wallet medical history forms with a plastic sleeve to protect them. Alternatively, there are templates available online.
I’ve scanned the one offered by one of our local hospitals below. It is rudimentary, but covers the basics.

And a couple of other items that, while not exactly a medical history, may merit discussion in your family as it has in mine (see His Bags Are Packed, He’s Ready To Go)..
  • First, all adults should consider having a Living Will that specifies what types of medical treatment you desire should you become incapacitated.
  • You may also wish to consider assigning someone as your Health Care Proxy, who can make decisions regarding your treatment should you be unable to do so for yourself.
  • Elderly family members with chronic health problems, or those with terminal illnesses, may even desire a home DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) Order. Without legal documentation, verbal instructions by family members – even if the patient is in the last stages of an incurable illness – are likely to be ignored by emergency personnel.

While admittedly, not the cheeriest topic of conversation in the world, a few minutes spent during this Thanksgiving holiday putting together medical histories could spare you and your family a great deal of anguish down the road.