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| Getting Medical Records and Information
Robin L. Bennett,
by Jennifer Graham,
updated July 9, 2011
family's medical history
holds important information about your own health. Many
common conditions (such as heart disease, cancer,
illness, osteoporosis, birth defects, and memory loss)
are passed down through families. By knowing what diseases
may occur in your family and sharing this information
with your doctor you and your family can receive
the best possible health care. What's most important
when collecting your family medical history is obtaining
accurate, complete records.
The Benefits of Knowing Your Family's Medical History
family's health information can help you in many ways.
For example, if a medical condition runs in your family,
you may receive the following benefits:
Better screening. You or other relatives may be
offered disease screening at an earlier age than the
general population. For example, breast cancer screening
may begin in the mid-20s instead of in the 40s and
50s, or colon cancer screening may be offered in the
20s and 30s instead of in the 50s.
Better medical prevention. There may be medications
or vitamins that you can take to help prevent a condition.
For example, a doctor may suggest taking oral contraceptives
to reduce a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer.
More informed pregnancy planning. A couple
may be able to make more informed decisions about
becoming pregnant because of family health information.
Psychological well-being. Knowing your family
medical history puts you in control of your health
and of your screening schedule for diseases that you
know run in your family. With this information, you
also know what diseases you should stay informed about
to ensure the health of yourself and your family.
What Information Should I Collect?
the most accurate family medical history, you should
gather as much information as possible about your family
members and include as many generations as you can.
At a minimum, your health care professional will want
to see a three generation family history.
For any family members with a disease, you should get information about that person's children or siblings. For each family member, some information is essential in order to assemble a family tree:
First and last names (including all married and maiden
names for women where appropriate).
The current age, or age at death
Exactly how people are related to each other. Make
sure you note if brothers and sisters have different
parents (they are half-siblings), or if people were
Note if twins are identical or fraternal. (Identical
twins have the exact same genes, whereas fraternal
twins only share as many genes as non-twin brothers
Note if any family member married a blood relative
(for example, two first cousins who marry).
country your ancestors are from. Be as specific as
possible. For example, if your ancestors are Native
American, note the tribal name; or if you ancestors
are Jewish note whether they are Ashkenazi
Jews (from eastern Europe)
or Sephardic Jews (from Spain or certain middle eastern
countries). (Some genetic conditions are more common
or easier to test for in certain ethnic groups.)
information about illnesses and treatment can help clarify
your risk for certain diseases:
Death: The cause of death, and if an autopsy was performed. Also note any history of miscarriages or babies who are deceased.
Any illnesses, birth defects, or mental retardation,
and if possible, the names of the hospital or medical
centers where the relative was treated. Also record
the age the illness occurred, and ideally the general
surgery, the age performed, and the reason why.
of the information you collect on a family tree tells
you about your genetic risk for certain diseases. However,
some diseases, such as heart disease, lung cancer, or
diabetes, are strongly associated with certain environmental
factors. Where possible, you should record these lifestyle
factors on your family tree. This information may help
your doctor or genetic counselor determine whether a
disease is likely due to a genetic predisposition that
runs through your family, or due to the lifestyle of
people in your family. These environmental factors include:
History of tobacco use.
of alcohol or drug use.
(this give a clue as to any toxic exposures that can
cause disease, for example exposures to chemicals
The most important thing about collecting medical information is ensuring that your records are complete and accurate. When collecting a relative's cause of death from family members, they may mention one disease as the cause of death, but that disease may just be a result of a different disease one that runs in your family. For example, the family member may remember that a deceased relative had bone cancer. But if the original cancer started in breast, then you and your family may be at risk for breast cancer rather than bone cancer. For this reason, the more information you can collect about your family's medical history, the more accurate your genetic counselor can be in determining your own risk.
Health can help you compile your family tree into a
family medical history that will serve as a valuable
tool for you, your relatives, and your healthcare providers.
becoming a member of the Genetic Health community, you
also receive easily understandable summaries of the
latest research and medical developments, tailored to
convey the news that's relevant to diseases that affect
you and your family.
How Do I Get My Medical Records
hospitals, and most doctors' offices, have a release
form that you can use to request your medical records.
In most cases you can request the medical information
directly from the doctor's office or medical records
department at a hospital. For information about a cancer,
you should send your request to the hospital's pathology
in mind that offices may only keep records for a certain
amount of time as required by that state. You should
call the office to be sure your records still exist.
In many cases you can simply send a letter that includes
the relevant information rather than using a specific
form. This letter will need to include:
Your birth date.
Your full name (including any information about name
Time frame when you were seen (for example July 1998
to September 2000).
The specific types of information you want sent (such
as reports from a brain scan, your cholesterol levels,
can have your records sent to yourself to share with
a healthcare professional, or directly to a health professional.
If you do have the records sent to a health professional,
let them know to expect the files.
How Do I Get Medical Information About My Relatives
You can only access medical records for other members
of your family with their permission, or with the permission
of the next-of-kin for a deceased family member. Each
state handles next-of-kin slightly differently, so you
should check the requirements in your state. However,
the usual legal order for next-of-kin is:
Children or parents
Nieces or Nephews
you are not the next-of-kin, you will need the signature
from the legal next-of-kin along with the medical release
form. You may also need to attach forms indicating your
legal right to the medical records, for example, if
you or the next-of-kin is the executor of the estate.
Each medical facility has slightly different regulations
about the paperwork required for obtaining a relative's
medical records. It is best to contact the medical facility
before submitting a request.
there is no charge to request medical records if the
medical records are sent directly to a health professional.
If you request that the medical records be sent to you,
there may be a fee. The cost can be surprisingly expensive
if there are lots of medical records because there are
per page copying charges and sometimes additional charges
for the time of the person making the copies.
In some cases, the information you need will be on the death certificate, which is easier to get than the medical records. If you are not the next of kin of the deceased, you should consider getting the death certificate first. If that does not provide the information you need, then try to obtain the medical records.
You can obtain death certificates from the vital records office in the state where the individual died. These can be valuable especially when medical records are not available. Usually death certificates not only contain information about the cause of death, place of death, and the age at death, but also may direct you to the hospital where the deceased individual received medical care (from which you can then request records). Death certificates may or may not include information about other medical conditions that did not contribute to the cause of death.
is often a small fee for a copy of the death certificate,
although noncertified copies often cost less than certified
copies. You do not need to obtain a certified copy of
the death certificate unless you plan to use this record
for a legal document.
Obituaries are not only an interesting historical record, but they may contain information about the deceased such as age at death and cause of death. Obituaries may be found through archives of the local town newspaper.
The National Personnel Records Center stores medical
treatment records of retirees from all services, as
well as records for dependents and other people treated
at Naval medical facilities. To obtain these records,
you will need the social security number of the person
who was in military service.
Common Errors in Collecting Medical Information
best place to start collecting medical information is
by talking to family members. However, reports of medical
information from relatives could be inaccurate, especially
if the information is about a distant relative. Information
may also not be accurate regarding sensitive topics
like a family history of mental illness, pregnancy loss,
or cancers that effect reproductive organs (testes,
ovaries, uterus, etc.). This may be due to a family
reluctance to talk about these issues, or to misinformation
that has persisted in the family dating back to the
time of the illness.
is important to find out the exact illness in order
to generate an accurate medical history. Some illnesses
such as breast cancer that families may
not discuss openly can be associated with an inherited
cause of cancer. It can benefit the health of the entire
family to have this information.
the Sensitive Nature of Medical Information
family members may be hesitant to provide sensitive
medical information. In this case, you do not need to
know every detail about a relative's treatment for a
medical condition; sometimes asking for very specific
information is easier to obtain. For example requesting
the pathology report on a tumor that was removed, or
requesting a surgical report. Also, when you share your
family tree with your health professional, you can use
initials or first names to help maintain family confidentiality.
Your health professional can always request more specific
information if necessary.
Remember to include your name on the family tree as
the historian of the information, and date your tree.
Putting an arrow pointing to yourself on the tree will
help your health professional identify you on the chart.
Keep your family health information up to date by adding
new information to your family tree as it arises. Make
sure you add the date you recorded this new information.
obtaining medical records from the military: National
Personnel Records Center
addresses of where to send requests for death certificates
in each state: www.vitalrec.com
R.L. (1999). The Practical Guide to the Genetic Family
History. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Bennett R.L. et al., (1995) Recommendations for standardized
pedigree nomenclature. American Journal of Human
Carlson, F. (1997). Growing Your Family Medical Tree.
Keep It Simple Solutions, Lafayette Hill, PA 19444-0136.
Krause, C. (1995) How Healthy is Your Family Tree?
A Complete Guide to Tracing Your Family's Medical and
Behavioral Tree. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Nelson-Anderson D.L. (1995). Genetic Connections:
A Guide to Documenting Your Individual and Family History.
Washington, MO: Sonters Publishing.
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