Medical History

As families gather soon to celebrate Christmas, it’s a perfect opportunity to ask nosy questions about your relatives interview people and compile a good family medical history.

Draw a little family tree, if you’re so inclined.  Don’t get overly complicated.  For a medical history, tradition dictates squares for males, circles for females (and diamonds for unknown).

Living father and mother, with living daughter and two living sons, plus a miscarriage of identical twins (gender unknown)

Some people prefer to stack males on the left, females on the right, regardless of age order.  That can make it easier to see patterns of sex-linked diseases.

Either shade-in or draw a line through those who are deceased; include nationality and age/cause of death.  Add grandparents.  It can be even more helpful to add aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Indicate who has which diseases.  There’s more information on how to draw a tree here.  You’ll quickly run out of room if you try to write-out everything, so make a key. 

When I was referred to both a rheumatologist and an endocrinologist within two-months, and the doctors asked about a family history, I had no idea if anyone had any medical problems.  I wrote a letter to my aunts and uncles and cousins, explained briefly what my doctors were asking, and requested any and all information that people were willing to share.  I also included a stamped, pre-addressed return postcard.  It was very easy for people to check the little “no issues” box or write-in details in the provided space, then drop the card in a mailbox.

Everyone responded.  Some sent back the card and some wrote a very nice letter, but most people picked up the telephone and called me (since I’m unlisted, that in itself was no small trick; they had to call around to get ahold of someone who had my telephone number).  Even those who didn’t phone me started calling one another, trying to jog memories to see what else they could recall.

Long after I thought I’d compiled the best medical history possible, when I mentioned to my mother that the doctors had pointedly asked if there was any family history of psoriasis, she said, “Oh, your grandmother had psoriasis.”  What?!  Nobody thought that was significant enough to tell me?  I contacted my aunts again, and they commenced to argue over whether their mother had psoriasis or eczema.

Lesson learned.  Even when people give you their medical history, don’t assume that they’ve told you everything.  Assume that there are missing pieces of important information that were inadvertently left out.  My uncle was on his 78th radiation treatment before I learned he had cancer.  He didn’t want to worry people.  My mother-in-law and sister-in-law both told me about a cancerous mole that MIL had removed, but to this day they’ve not said anything to my husband.

People will also leave out bits of information that they think are embarrassing, or too shameful to discuss.  That’s where gossip comes in.  Other people will be only too happy to tell you about your aunt’s drinking problem, or cousin’s latest surgery.  When families gather later this month will be a perfect opportunity to see what you can learn.

The surgeon general has a website with a tool to help you compile the information you find.  When I used it, I saved the file to my own hard drive.  There’s no question of the government someday sharing my personal information; they don’t have my personal information.  One weakness of the software, however, is that it ignores half-siblings.  This means your report might omit important information.

To learn more about creating a family medical history:

How to Collect a Family History

Tracing Your Family Medical History

Blue Eyes and Long Lives

Family Health History

Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree

Creating a Family Medical History

How to create your medical family tree

Family History Tools