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Why Awkward Family Medical History Conversations Save Lives

Let's face it; all families are unique. Everyone has embarrassing information they'd rather keep in the family, from awkward inside jokes to matching holiday pajama sets. Those secrets can come to the forefront, especially when the family gathers around the Thanksgiving table. However, what shouldn't remain a secret is the family's medical history. Those awkward conversations can later become crucial for your healthcare provider to properly diagnose you or a family member, thus saving lives.

Genetics make up who we are, from our eyes and hair color to the tiniest characteristics of our health and wellness. Hereditary traits influence height, weight, bone structure, and physical capabilities. 

When it comes to our health, many serious illnesses tend to run in families. Medical history can inform us of our predisposition to certain diseases and conditions like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and colon cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, "about 5% of people who develop colorectal cancer have inherited gene changes that cause family cancer syndromes and can lead to them getting the disease." Information empowers patients in a proactive treatment approach and eliminates some of the guesswork doctors must do to ascertain the culprit behind troublesome symptoms.

We understand these conversations can be uncomfortable and even embarrassing. That's why GI Associates is working to break down the stigma around sharing your personal health history. Knowledge is the best tool available for taking care of your personal health and wellness. Every patient should feel confident in speaking openly with their healthcare provider.

Learn more about the role generational health plays in your wellness so you can feel empowered in the conversation.

Why is Family Medical History Important?

When it comes to our personal healthcare journey, it's easy to overlook the small details. In fact, many patients wonder why generational health is so important, to begin with. Filling out daunting questionnaires can feel invasive and awkward. Providing the reasons behind the uncomfortable conversations can help patients feel more at ease.

Medical history is important for a variety of reasons. Roughly 25% of human longevity is genetically determined. Think of hereditary traits as the building blocks that are passed on from one generation to the next. Genes are a part of our complex DNA makeup. From family planning to managing your own healthy lifestyle to determining when and if preventative testing is needed, a patient's genetics can tell a lot of information about what's going on beneath the surface. A few of the key reasons why medical history questions are so relevant is that they can be used to:

  • Assess your risk of certain diseases

  • Recommend changes in diet or other lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of disease

  • Recommend medications or treatments to reduce the risk of disease

  • Determine which diagnostic tests to order

  • Determine the type and frequency of screening tests

  • Determine whether you or family members should get a specific genetic test

  • Identify a condition that might not otherwise be considered

  • Identify other family members who are at risk of developing a certain disease

  • Assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children

Medical history questions are especially important to your gastrointestinal health as these factors can be used to better inform symptoms. GI health symptoms are often vague and difficult to pinpoint. With a detailed generational health tree, your doctor can narrow down what tests are needed more efficiently to get you feeling better sooner.

What Sort of Questions do Providers Need to Know?

Being prepared for the kind of questions your healthcare provider will ask can help you feel more assured going into your appointment. Questions relating to hereditary diseases will attempt to show patterns throughout an individual's family health history. These questions can range from specifics to more broad details that help doctors determine key risk factors.

An example of a family medical history questionnaire may go as follows:

  • How old are you?

  • Do you or did anyone in our family have any long-term health problems, like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, bleeding disorder, or lung disease?

  • Do you or did anyone in our family have any health issues like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or asthma?

  • Does anyone in our family have any other serious illnesses, such as cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's/dementia, genetic birth disorder, or osteoporosis?

  • How old were they when they were diagnosed?

  • Are their illnesses under control? How are/were they treated?

While these questions can provide a generalized overview, patients can take an active role in their healthcare journey by providing doctors with any additional pertinent information. Other questions to consider include:

  • What countries did our relatives come from?

  • Did our late relatives have health problems? What were the issues and when were they diagnosed?

  • How old were they when they died?

  • What were the reasons for their deaths?

There's no such thing as too much information when it comes to your health. Feel confident in discussing your family’s health details and remember your doctor's office is a safe and supportive environment. Your healthcare confidentiality is our top priority as we work hard to implement personalized care plans for every patient.

What if I Don't Know My Family Health History?

There are many reasons why a patient may not know their family health history. Adoption or simply lack of information on extended family history is often troublesome when attempting to complete a family health questionnaire. Some adoptees may be able to ask the appropriate organization for any health history or details on their biological parents, while others may simply be unable to obtain such information.

In cases where no family health history is known, genetic testing is the latest technology available to provide information that would be otherwise unknown. Genetic testing involves taking a closer look at your DNA profile to identify hereditary diseases and other hereditary traits. While the prospect can be daunting, many patients find that demystifying their personal health actually reduces anxiety surrounding healthcare.

If you find that genetic testing isn't the right path for you, your doctor will do their best to make educated decisions for preventative testing based on your age, race, lifestyle, and other risk factors that may contribute to your genetic or personal health makeup.

Be confident in your personal wellness with our GI team. We're here to empower every step of your healthcare journey. Check out our patient education portal for more information on ways you can stay in control of your health and wellness.

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