health IT, health information technology, Google electronic medical records

Web Tool Helps You Fill in the Blanks of Family Medical History

January 18, 2009 07:58 AM
by Emily Coakley
A relaunched government service will help people assemble family medical histories electronically.

Log On To Help Your Doctor

The federal government launched a free tool to help people improve their medical care this week. The Family Health History, as its name suggests, allows you to fill out a digital version of the medical problems your relatives have had.

Research shows that the family medical histories filled out at the doctor’s office usually contain errors, and many people haven’t even talked to family members to be able to complete such a form, the Associated Press reported.

But family histories aren’t just busy work the doctors give you before an appointment; they are considered an essential part of a person’s health care.

According to a November 2008 column on the Mayo Clinic Web site, “We have long known that diseases run in families and thus, your family medical history is an important tool which enables you to better understand your health risks.

Carrie Zabel, a Mayo Clinic genetics counselor who wrote the column, said that the medical community hopes that once a person is aware of his or her history, he or she can make better lifestyle choices.

Family Health History allows a person to download the form and send it to relatives for them to fill in. According to AP, relatives can rearrange the history with one click so they can complete it on their own.

Though the history can be e-mailed, reports that experts say e-mailing such information could allow others to read it.

The Family Health History tool has been available since 2004, but some changes will enable it to be incorporated more easily into existing electronic health records, according to

“The software code will now be openly available so that other health organizations can customize it with features that meet their needs, said Robert Kolodner, national coordinator for health information technology,” reported.

Revamping the electronic family tree to be more easily integrated with other electronic health records is just another step in the federal government’s push toward moving the future of health care from paper to digital files.

Background: Moving health care from paper to the Web

The Agency for Healthcare Research Quality has several tools on its Web site to help medical organizations adopt electronic health records.

Health information technology, according to AHRQ, “is a key element to the nation’s 10-year strategy to bring health care into the 21st century.”

The agency has provided more than $260 million for grants and demonstration projects around the country to help hospitals and other medical groups adopt health information technology.

Major companies such as Google and Microsoft have started online personal health record services, according to The New York Times. The newspaper described a pilot project in which Cleveland Clinic patients used the Google health records. C. Martin Harris, the clinic’s chief information officer, offered an example of how the records could help.

“Until now, if a patient doesn’t remember to tell me,” Harris said, “I don’t know about drugs prescribed outside the Cleveland Clinic system.”

Opinion & Analysis: Debating the security of electronic health records

Stacey Butterfield, writing on the American College of Physicians Internist blog, said the family tree site is a “cool new Web tool that could be of real use to physicians and patients.” Being able to e-mail family members means you can “avoid the embarrassment of interrupting Christmas dinner to ask Grandma for the results of her last Pap smear,” Butterfield writes.

In spite of the convenience, some worry about privacy issues. Deborah Peel, a physician and founder of Patient Privacy Rights, a nonprofit organization that is organizing a privacy-rights coalition, told USA Today in June 2008 that “the concept is wonderful, but because we have absolutely no control over personal health information in electronic form, they're very dangerous."

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines