Arts & Culture

Brigham pilot program connects people with family histories

3 min read

Aims to help people avoid health problems of the past

A Harvard Medical School instructor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is spearheading a pilot project to encourage Brigham employees to gather detailed family health histories to give health care officials an edge fighting inherited diseases.

Instructor in Medicine Michael Murray, clinical chief of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Genetics Division, is leading a yearlong effort that encourages the Harvard teaching hospital’s 12,000 employees to talk to relatives and record the health history of at least their closest relatives: parents, siblings, and children.

Family health histories can be useful tools for health care providers in determining whether an individual is at risk for certain diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, that are known to run in families.

“Most people who have gone to a health care provider have given some information, but probably only one in 10 has a complete family history in their medical records,” Murray said.

The pilot program is being conducted in partnership with the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, which kicked off a family health initiative in 2004. In November 2005, the Surgeon General’s Office held a news conference at Brigham to unveil a new Web-based tool to help people gather family health histories.

“Even with all the high-tech tests, medicines, and procedures available in today’s modern health care setting, family health history remains the cornerstone of our efforts to prevent disease and promote personal health,” Surgeon General Richard Carmona said in a November statement. “It’s clear that knowing your family history can save your life.”

The Brigham campaign is voluntary and encourages employees to use the surgeon general’s Web tool, which asks a series of questions about family members who may have one of several commonly inherited diseases.

The family history created at the Web site can be saved on an individual’s personal computer, a feature created to address concerns about health record privacy.

Once recorded, the family health history can be printed out and brought to the individual’s physician. Having the history clearly detailed before them will allow doctors to ask more directed questions, Murray said.

“Instead of saying, ‘Was Uncle Charlie your mother’s brother or father’s brother?’ they can spend time discussing the [family history],” Murray said.

The program, funded by both the hospital and the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, will use a variety of ways to spread the word about the importance of family histories.

In addition to postings on bulletin boards, fliers, and e-mails informing hospital staff about the program, Murray and the four project staffers will conduct informational meetings and set up places where people who don’t have a personal computer can get access to the Internet. With the downloadable form, Murray said, they can walk away from the computer with a CD with their family health history burned on it.

While it’s important that people record their family histories, Murray said the project staff will also be conducting periodic surveys to see how often people are sharing the information with their doctors. That’s a critical step, Murray said, because without it the exercise becomes just an interesting foray into family background.

“It’s great to get your family history, but if you don’t take it to a health care provider and discuss it, it’s not a public health initiative, however personally interesting it is,” Murray said.