My Family Health Portrait Tool - Chart Your History

A doctor writes in a medical chart.
A doctor writes in a medical chart. Tetra Images/Getty Images

Among the medical records patients should create themselves is a complete family health and medical history; that is, a listing of each blood relative whose genetic makeup might affect our health or medical needs, or whose health we might affect through our blood lines.

The US Surgeon General's office has developed an Internet-based tool you can use to track your family medical history. It's free, easy to access, easy to use, and is a good start for tracking important information. Here are some tips for getting the best use from this tool.

Start by accessing the Surgeon General's My Family Health Portrait Tool. You can "Create a Family Health History" or "Use a Saved History." These files are not saved online, you will save them on your computer only.

You do not have to be American to use this tool. It's available to anyone who would like to use it.

Personal Information in the My Family Health Portrait Tool

Include enough personal information so you will know who you are referring to. "Jane" or "Aunt Tilly" or "Grampa Sam" is all you need. It's better to leave out last names. (See privacy notes below.)

Some experts suggest you keep records on more family members than this tool originally asks you to list. There is a button for adding additional family members like nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.

Add Medical Information

You'll find the drop-down list of health problems is limited. You do have the capability of choosing "Add New" to include any problem not listed in the drop down menu.

You'll also find that when you look at the saved files, including the chart, those medical conditions are abbreviated in some sort of med-speak shorthand. There is a legend that aligns each abbreviation with its corresponding disease (e.g. HA = heart attack, or PrC = prostate cancer). But it may be confusing to you, and it can get complicated if there are a lot of recorded diseases and conditions. Your best bet is to print a copy of the chart, then make your own notations by hand about what diseases and conditions you have listed.

Also, you'll see at the bottom of the chart page, a table listing of each person and diseases which can be helpful for making quick assessments of your risks of disease development.

Saving Your Family Health History Files

You'll find you have a choice when it comes time to save your file. You can save it as an XML file, a form of text file. If you ever plan to use the tool again, this is a must.

It will not save to the website itself (a good thing -- see notes below about privacy and security). It will save to your computer, so set up a folder to keep it in so you'll be able to find it someday when you are ready to update it or print it.

The XML file may be used later if you decide to include this particular health history in your personal health record, or to share it with your doctor's electronic medical record system. XML is a format that is universally read by many other applications.

You may also look at your history, and save it, as a graphic, chart-like representation. You can see what the chart looks like in the photo above.

Privacy and Security of My Family Health Portrait Files

It appears that your information cannot be tracked by the government, even though it is their application you are using. When you save the files, you save them to your hard drive, and they are not retained online.

Of course, there are many ways of tracking us through the Internet and potentially violating our privacy that have nothing to do with storing records on any specific website. If you are at all nervous about being tracked, then follow my original advice about including enough information so that you know who each family member is, but not so much that the information can be attributed to you specifically. This is the best way to keep your information private.

A family health history is an important medical record to keep. Wise patients will establish a good record, will share it with blood relatives, and will keep it updated.

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