What is a Medical Family Tree?

Mary McMahon

A medical family tree is a record of a family medical history organized in a way that makes it easy to see the connections between family members. As the field of medicine advances, researchers are increasingly realizing the importance of family history. Medical family trees can be used in a variety of ways by care providers, as well as patients. Compiling a tree takes time and it may be helpful to organize it as a family project to share the labor.

A medical family tree can help doctors identify lifestyle changes or medical tests that may be necessary to avoid some genetically-linked conditions.
A medical family tree can help doctors identify lifestyle changes or medical tests that may be necessary to avoid some genetically-linked conditions.

When compiling a medical family tree, people assemble as much information about their relatives as possible. Entries should ideally include names, dates and places of birth, ethnicity, and history of any major illnesses or diseases, whether or not they are known to have a genetic component. More detailed entries can include general health history, along with notes about allergies, birth defects, and other elements of health history.

Older family members may be able to provide information about family history.
Older family members may be able to provide information about family history.

Using a medical family tree, a care provider may be able to identify patterns that can be used to make recommendations to a patient. A family history of conditions with a genetic component might indicate that a patient should make some lifestyle changes, get regular screening for certain conditions, or consider taking prophylactic measures. Family histories also can be helpful during diagnosis, as they may reveal conditions that a doctor would not have thought of when working the patient up to find out what is wrong.

A medical family tree can be documented and organized into a journal.
A medical family tree can be documented and organized into a journal.

Care must be taken when developing a medical family tree. Some family members may not be comfortable sharing personal medical information and it is important to respect privacy and protect medical histories. It can be helpful to create a form or list of questions for people to respond to in order to collect complete information. Family members should be assured that information they submit will only be shared with family and doctors. The tree should also be updated periodically to reflect changes in family history.

In addition to being useful for medical care, a medical family tree can also potentially be a useful research tool, if a family is willing to share it. The more information researchers have about groups of people who are related, the easier it will be to identify genetic links or components that might otherwise be missed. Medical genealogists with a particular interest in a family may offer opportunities such as genetic testing to compile more information, providing chances for people to contribute to scientific research, while also receiving valuable genetic screening.

Collecting family health information may help prevent diseases from occurring in the future.
Collecting family health information may help prevent diseases from occurring in the future.

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