It's one of the first things you do at a doctor's visit -- fill out a family medical history. But does providing this information actually do any good? Perhaps not.
In a new analysis, researchers funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reviewed 137 studies on family history-taking. They set out to examine the pros and cons of collecting a family medical history; how well the history predicts an individual's risk of disease; and how accurately patients report it. The studies were performed between 1995 and March of this year.
The results showed that few studies actually examined these questions. Overall, there was not even enough evidence to say how history collection affects patients' outcomes. What the researchers did find was that patients tend to report the absence of disease in relatives better than the presence of disease.
Though these findings may seem worrisome, the study's author said doctors take many other factors into account when treating a patient.
"We understand the absolute importance of family history in assessing the risk of genetic conditions," said Dr. Brenda J. Wilson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa. "But when you are looking at complex diseases, such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and so forth, we wouldn't expect the family history to tell us everything we need to know. Family history plays into it, but it's one of many factors."
A doctor assessing the risk of heart disease would also check a patient's blood pressure and weight and perform cholesterol and perhaps other tests, she said.
"What we don't know is how useful family history is along with this other risk information," Wilson said. "For complex disorders, we need to develop the evidence for how to use it."
Methods for collecting family medical history should be simpler, she added. Electronic medical records and other information-gathering tools could help.
The study was published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.