Medical Histories Support Aging Parents and Their Families

What is more important for the personal health of an individual –a family history taken by a physician or genetic testing?

According to an Associated Press article published in the Washington Post, while genetic testing has important uses, people should be aware that a thorough family history taken by a physician is what Cleveland Clinic geneticist, Charis Eng, MD, calls “the best kept secret in health care.” The article, Family Health History: Best Kept Secret in Health Care, by AP health reporter Lauran Needgaard, points out that knowing and understanding a family’s medical history contributes mightily to the health of family members. In fact, medical histories are still the gold standard, even thought all sorts of amazing scans and genetic tests are available.

At the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics in Washington, DC, four genetics

Page from the Surgeon General's Family Medical History Site Printable Version

researchers, including Dr. Eng, described how family histories help to assess an individual’s risk for disease. The four conference presenters also participated in a panel press briefing (links to conference abstracts are also available at this link), describing their experiences with genetics testing and medical histories.

Dr. Eng explained how she and her colleagues conducted research with 22 cancer patients using their 22 spouses as a control group. Researchers compared the information in 44 medical histories with results of personal genome scanning assessing the cancer risk for three common cancers — that of colon, breast and prostate. Her team found a low measurement of agreement between the medical histories and the genetic tests. Both identified risks but seldom agreed on what those risks were.

Dr. Wendy Rubinstein, a physician from the NorthShore University Health System in Chicago described her research and pointed out that both histories and genetic research are important; however, at this point the medical history remains the gold standard. In her presentation she explained, “No matter how expert we become in deciphering the human genome, family history will always be an integral part of bringing the promise of genetics to medicine.”

All four clinicians have much more to say on the video of their press briefing. Below are links to additional articles.

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