Americans are being asked to investigate their family's medical history over their Thanksgiving dinner this year. Thursday 25 November 2004 will be the first National Family History Day, a new initiative designed to highlight the importance of family history in healthcare. Launched by US Surgeon General Richard Carmona, the campaign aims to get families to record details of relatives affected by illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. The project has provided a free web-based tool to construct a 'family health portrait', which is available to download from the Department of Health and Human Services website.
Healthcare professionals have known for a long time that many common diseases run in families, suggesting they are influenced by genes. However, most are the result of complex interactions between several genetic and non-genetic factors, many of which remain unknown. Following the recent completion of the Human Genome Project in April 2003, scientists think that genetics will have an increasing impact on healthcare. Predicted benefits include personalised drug treatments, and disease prevention advice tailored to an individual's genetic make-up.
Despite the expected technological advances, family history is a valuable tool that will remain 'highly relevant for years to come', according to an article in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. It says that family history has already been shown to help predict the risk of health conditions such as colorectal cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and even a predisposition to committing suicide.
The article concludes that in the near future, detailed genetic information 'will play an important and everyday role in guiding patient care'. But the authors also stress that 'as we work towards that day, it is important that we do not overlook what patients know about the health of their families'. A recent survey found that 96 per cent of Americans believe that knowing family history is important to their health, although only a third have ever tried to gather such information. 'Family history can be a window into a person's genome', said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), adding that 'tracking diseases from one generation to the next can help doctors infer the illnesses for which we are at risk, and thus enable them to create personalised disease-prevention plans'.