The Importance of Family History

Probably, we have all seen the well-designed commercials touting the important role of family history in healthcare. The commercials begin by asking, "Where does cholesterol come from?" and in response we see images of fried chicken, French fries, and red meat floating on the television screen. The commercial then adds that cholesterol can also come from "Aunt Helen" or "Uncle George" illustrating that family inheritance can also contribute to elevated cholesterol levels.

The message in these commercials is significant. We know that family history is important to health; we understand that certain disorders can run in families. A recent survey indicated that 96% of Americans believe knowing their family history is important yet only about one-third of Americans have tried to write their histories.

My Family Health Portrait is a web tool developed by the Surgeon General's office to assist members of the public in detailing their family history. On this site one may record as much health information as is known and print for sharing with other family members and with their physicians.

Sharing family history with you doctor has several advantages in both pediatric and adult settings. Family history can be used for diagnosing and identifying risk for certain disorders; it can provide guidance on screening and other preventive efforts; it provides an educational opportunity to correct any misconceptions, and it serves to establish a rapport with the health provider.

The family history initiative is not limited to the lay population but also targets and encourages clinicians to collect detailed family histories (3 generations if possible). Identified barriers to physician use include lack of sufficient office time, lack of training in interpreting the history, lack of reimbursement for the service, and being provided inaccurate or incomplete family history information.

Family history collection tools have been developed for the healthcare professional's use and may be found at several web sites including the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics (NCHPEG) and the March of Dimes. To be used successfully, family history tools should not be too time consuming and should be easy to implement in the office setting. Increased public interest in family history can also be a motivating factor to healthcare providers to include into practice.

For more information or to view and complete a family history tool, you may visit the following sites:


  • NCHPEG -
  • Family Health Portrait -
  • March of Dimes -