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Telling the Story of Your Health: Tips for Keeping Track of Your Family Medical History

May 19, 2015 Posted in: Family Health , Article

Each member of your family has their own unique dreams, personality, and health history. For that very reason it can be difficult to remember who took which medication or what year someone had a particular illness. Keeping track of these can help during your next doctor's visit or if you ever change doctors. You may want to use an app, a notebook, or another organizational device to keep track of your personal and family medical history.

After learning a few basic things such as your height, weight, and background, each doctor you meet will ask about the following: your past medical history, any surgeries you have had, your allergies, your medications, how often you drink and/or smoke, and your family health history, often in that order.

Past Medical History

Your past medical history is a list of significant diseases that still affect you today. For example: the angina that began when you were 40, the hypertension you were diagnosed with at 60, or the asthma you have had since childhood for which you still take medication every week. Chronic diseases you were born with, such as sickle cell anemia or bleeding problems, should also be mentioned here.

Serious illnesses from the past — tuberculosis, malaria, and hepatitis, to name a few — can potentially cause problems in the future. If it put you in the hospital at any point in time, please tell your doctor about it in your past medical history.

Short-lived or one-time problems, such as bronchitis or an ear infection, need not be mentioned in your past medical history unless they happen every year.


Your past surgical history is where you talk about how your tonsils were taken out at age 10 or your appendix was removed at age 25. Even if the procedure was elective, please tell your provider about any surgery you've had, what year it happened, why it happened, and where it was done.


Allergies can pop up at any time in life. How long you have been allergic to pollen, bee stings or penicillin and what happens when you encounter them are the critical pieces of information for your doctor to have.


Make a list of the medications you take, how often you take them, when you began taking them, and for what purpose. These may be pills, eye drops, nasal sprays, patches, injections, or inhalers. Any drug that you take for any reason — even if it is meant to prevent rather than treat, such as an aspirin a day or a birth control pill — should be listed. Also list any herbs, supplements, or special dietary additives that you take. Dietary supplements can cause other medications to work better, worse, or not at all. It is critical to let your physician know about all medications and supplements up front.

Social History

Questions about such issues as drinking, smoking, and other social behaviors may come up when you talk with your doctor. Even if these events happened long ago, telling your provider about them now is crucial to preserving your future health. As a result of knowing about your past, your doctor may be able to make better recommendations and diagnoses.

Family Health History

The first time that you meet a new doctor or specialist, she or he will ask you about the health of other members of your family. Tools such as My Family Health Portrait, available for free from the U.S. Surgeon General, are quick and accurate ways of gathering information about the health of other family members into one place. This overall family history will let your new doctors know if they need to screen you for common familial conditions, including diabetes, common genetic diseases linked to breast and bowel cancer, and some less common but still important diseases.

If you bring this information about your personal and family medical history to every encounter with your health care providers, you will get more out of each visit. With your past already well-documented, you'll have more time than ever to spend talking with your doctors about both your concerns in the present and your hopes for the future.

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