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Survey highlights family health history ignorance

14 February 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 295

Patients should be more aware of family health problems, according to a survey of UK doctors, but a second poll shows that that most people aren't interested. A poll of 202 GPs, carried out for insurance company Norwich Union Healthcare, found that 88 per cent felt patients needed to know more about hereditary conditions that ran in their families. However, an accompanying survey of 1042 members of the public found that 79 per cent said they did not feel they needed to know about their family health history. Of those that did have some knowledge, three quarters were driven by curiosity, whilst only three per cent said they were interested for health reasons.

The results are in stark contrast to those of a recent US survey, which found that 96 per cent of people believe that knowing family history is important to their health. Commenting on the UK findings, GP Ann Robinson said that 'we often know more about our friends' health than we do about our own grandparents, aunts and uncles'. She added: 'If you know you have a family tendency to develop Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes or some types of cancer, you can get specific advice about how to prevent the disease yourself, or at least pick it up in the very early stages'.

Doug Wright, clinical development manager at Norwich Union Healthcare, said that the firm wanted to encourage people to generate and update their family history to promote 'a sense of responsibility and encourage individuals to play a part in their own healthcare management'. The company has launched an online 'health tree', to help people record their family health history, which is accompanied by information on illnesses that run in families.

Many common illnesses have a genetic component, but most cases are also influenced by a range of non-genetic factors such as lifestyle and diet. A spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Society said that only a very small number of cases of the disease are linked to genes. 'We wouldn't like to make people worry unduly that if they have family members with Alzheimer's, that they will go on to get it', she told BBC News Online. Currently, genetic tests are only relevant to a small proportion of families affected by cancers and other common conditions. Geneticists think that for most people, family history is likely to remain an important tool for assessing the risk of future illnesses.

UK insurance companies are not currently allowed to ask potential customers to undergo genetic tests, or to use the results of tests already carried out. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) agreed to impose a five-year moratorium on the use of genetic test results, which is due to expire in November 2006.

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Norwich Union |  8 February 2005
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