Family history: the neglected risk factor in disease prevention

Jon D Emery, Fiona M Walter and David Ravine
Med J Aust 2010; 192 (12): . || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2010.tb03699.x
Published online: 21 June 2010

It is time to reconsider the clinical benefits arising from family history and start making better use of it

A patient’s family history may aid clinical diagnosis and contribute to disease risk assessment and prediction. It frequently yields valuable social history, including information about family support structures and insights into individual beliefs about illness.1 Although taking family history is traditionally regarded as a routine part of the medical history, it is not used in a systematic way in clinical practice. In this issue of the Journal, Langlands and colleagues report the results of an audit in an Australian teaching hospital, which found that nearly three-quarters of patients admitted to a short-stay medical unit had no documentation of family history having been considered as part of the diagnostic assessment.2 A similar situation exists in primary care. Although there are no published comparable data from Australian general practice, a primary care study in the United States found that only 16% of subjects (n = 362) had any record of their family history in their clinical chart, including 15 individuals at high risk of an inherited cancer syndrome.3

  • 1 School of Primary, Aboriginal and Rural Health Care, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA.
  • 2 General Practice and Primary Care Research Unit, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
  • 3 School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA.


Competing interests:

David Ravine is an author of the article that is the subject of this editorial.

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