- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Families should use Thanksgiving to express gratitude, enjoy a big meal and, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, compile a family health history.

The agency is urging Americans to pause tomorrow amid the turkey and mashed potatoes to detail alarming health problems, such as cancer and heart disease, and other conditions, such as high blood pressure, that have afflicted siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona has declared this Thanksgiving Day the first National Family History Day, and HHS has created a free health inventory computer program that can be either downloaded or printed out from the agency Web site.

“The bottom line is that knowing your family history can save your life,” Dr. Carmona said. “Millions of dollars in medical research, equipment and knowledge can’t give us the information that this simple tool can.”

Dr. Carmona says the profile — which documents familial heart disease, diabetes and diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia — can create an efficient “risk profile” for families in an age when doctor-patient time is often at a premium.

The HHS inventory ultimately creates a graphic printout that can be photocopied and given to respective family doctors, who then make appropriate recommendations, a potential diagnosis or even a treatment plan.

“With this new family health history tool, we are entering the next generation of prevention,” said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

Some object to the whole idea.

“A lot of people do not realize what happens with personal family information once it’s out of their hands. Federal law says that after personal family information is shared with health care providers, the data can be released to many others — insurance companies and public health officials — without families’ consent,” said Sue A. Blevins of the Institute for Health Freedom, a Virginia-based nonprofit research group.

“Regardless of the lack of true medical privacy, it is not the federal government’s role to tell families how to spend their Thanksgiving holiday,” she added.

The government, meanwhile, has found that most families are not particularly inclined to make an accounting of their health patterns in the first place.

A survey to be published next week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing family history is important to their health, but only a third of us have ever tried to compile one.

HHS hopes to make it as easy — and nonthreatening — as possible. The new computerized tool, called “My Family Health Portrait,” can be downloaded at www.hhs.gov/familyhistory/.

Personal information entered into the program is maintained on the user’s computer only, HHS says; information will not be available to the federal government or any other agency. The software is available in both English and Spanish.

A print version of the inventory is available through the Federal Citizen Information Center (888/878-3256) or by writing “My Family Health Portrait,” Pueblo, CO 81009. About 3,600 consolidated health centers nationwide also will have the print version.

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