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Time to Focus on Your Family Health History

Learning your family health history is one easy step people can take to improve their own wellness.
Learning your family health history is one easy step people can take to improve their own wellness.

In this holiday season, everyone should take the opportunity to begin (or continue) discussions with extended family about health and wellness.

At Duke, Dr. Geoffrey Ginsburg, director of the Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine, and Dr. Lori Orlando, associate director for the center, are leading a study funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute that streamlines the process for obtaining family health history information from patients and using it to help them identify conditions at which they might be at risk. Central to this study is the Duke-developed MeTree software program.  

MeTree is a web-based family and personal health history collection and clinical decision support program that gathers information directly from patients. It collects personal history on medical conditions, diet, exercise, smoking, vital signs and laboratory data in addition to family health history to calculate various health-risk scores and assess risk for 20 cancers, 14 hereditary cancer and cardiovascular syndrome and 21 other conditions.

“MeTree is an innovation in assessing genetic risk – risk of disease that runs in families – and is revolutionary in its ability to provide this information to both patients and providers in order for focused health promoting interventions to take place at the time of the visit,” Ginsburg said. 

MeTree is being studied in five national health care systems, including Duke, and will soon be available for all of Duke patients. The goal for MeTree is to help document and provide a risk assessment for the diseases and conditions that run in families.

“It’s been amazing to see how such a simple concept – family history – can provide such valuable information to patients and their families.  Before beginning my work with MeTree I thought I was doing a great job collecting and using family history for risk assessment, now I realize I was not using it to its fullest extent and it’s transformed how I practice,” Orlando said.

In the meantime, the Surgeon General’s online tool “My Family Health Portrait” can help people compile, print and share family health history with relatives and family doctors. Visit the Duke Center for Applied Genomics and Precision Medicine to learn more about family health histories and MeTree.

“My goal over the past year has been to have the family history for most of my patients completed at least involving all first degree relatives,” said Dr. Bruce Peyser, one of the providers who is participating in the Family Health History study at the Pickett Road Clinic, where he also is the medical director. “This tool will be helpful to colleagues within Duke who might not have the time or perspective to obtain and collate that data. I did not find that this caused extra work or took much extra time – in fact it saved time and provided me valuable information for my practice.”