updated 11/8/2004 4:42:45 PM ET 2004-11-08T21:42:45

Medical officials are urging families to talk not just turkey this Thanksgiving but also medical history — generations of it — to help identify breast, heart and other problems early enough to prevent them.

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“Knowing your family’s history can save your life,” Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said Monday. “Thanksgiving is a perfect day for talking about family history. ... You’ll be amazed at what you learn.”

That knowledge, recent genetic studies show, often means power to predict and perhaps head off diseases prevalent in families even before they appear.

New software program
To help catalog the information in a form that will save doctors valuable time, health and genetic experts announced a free, Internet-based computer program that compiles information about six common diseases that often pass through generations including heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

The software of “My Family Health Portrait” then prints out a graphic that can help a doctor assess the risk factors for family members and begin tests and treatment before any disease is evident, officials said.

Genetic factors contribute to the cause, length and response to therapy of almost every type of illness and are influenced by abnormalities in DNA. So knowing family medical histories can help doctors tell people the risks of certain illnesses that run in the family.

While 96 percent of people think knowing such history is important to their health, only about a third have ever tried to catalog the information, according to a study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August.

The average doctor’s visit is 20 minutes, which is too short to interview a patient, record three generations of medical history, assess disease risks and chart courses of action, said geneticist Francis S. Collins.

“Family history is central to taking advantage of the new genomic medicine, which is bubbling up all around us,” said Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute who was a leader of the Human Genome Project.

Privacy concerns
Carmona acknowledged that filing family histories carries privacy concerns, such as the possibility an insurance company might see the records and raise a patient’s premium or deny coverage. But family medical histories already sit in many patients’ files, he pointed out.

Additionally, a bill passed by the Senate and working its way through the House would provide more protection by barring employers from using people’s family histories in hiring or firing, Carmona said.

The family history initiative cost the government about $300,000, mostly for printing and software, said Larry Thompson, spokesman for the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The software can be downloaded at www.hhs.gov/familyhistory. A print version of “My Family Health Portrait” will be available in English and Spanish at more than 3,600 medical offices nationwide. Print versions also can be obtained from the Federal Citizen Information Center at 888-878-3256.

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