Women should schedule a well woman visit each year. At well woman visits, you’ll have a physical exam checking basics like your weight, blood pressure, and health history. You’ll have a pelvic exam and a clinical breast exam. You’ll also be asked about your family health history.
Prepare for those family health history questions ahead of time to get the greatest benefit.
Why a family health history?
Family health history questions allow your doctor to identify areas of greater risk for you. For example, if breast cancer, diabetes, or heart disease run in your family, your doctor needs to know this.
You will probably be asked about any chronic diseases members of your immediate family may have, the causes of death of your parents and grandparents (if they are no longer living), and any mental health or reproductive health issues you, your parents, or your siblings may have experienced. You may be asked about the ethnic or geographic heritage of your family.
This information helps to flag risks for diseases with a genetic component. It can also help to uncover shared behaviors that may increase your risk for certain health conditions.
How to prepare a family health history
You may know a lot about your family’s health history. On the other hand, you may not know the answers to all your doctors’ questions, or you may have some false information.
It’s a good idea to prepare for your annual well woman visit by learning more about your family’s health history — and writing it down. “The weakest ink is stronger than the strongest memory,” as the old saying goes.
Start by asking your parents, grandparents, and siblings about illnesses or conditions they’ve had. They may be able to remember when these events took place or started. If they’re not sure, having a rough idea can often be helpful.
If you’re adopted, ask your parents if they have health information about your birth parents. If not, you may be able to access non-identifying medical records. You should let your physician know that you were adopted.
An online Family Health Portrait from the Surgeon General’s Office gives you a good way to document the information you learn, as well as ideas about what questions to ask.
Gathering this data ahead of time will make this part of your well woman visit easier and more valuable.