Skip to contents
In This Issue:
A person’s family health history holds important information about their own health. However, documenting that information and sharing it with primary care providers has long been a challenge for doctors and patients alike. A new study led by researchers at BWH is attempting to capitalize on health information technology to deliver more personalized medical care.
“Knowing your family health history is important because many common chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, breast and colorectal cancer, have a hereditary component,” said Michael Murray, MD, clinical chief of the Division of Genetics and a co-investigator of the Family Lifetime Information Genetic History Tool, or FLIGHT. “Evaluating familial risk helps primary care providers tailor prevention, treatment and screening plans to the individual patient. What’s more, increasing patients’ awareness of their own hereditary predispositions may encourage them to modify their health behavior, potentially reducing their risk for developing the conditions in the future.”
The FLIGHT study seeks to address many of the barriers to documenting a family health history that currently exist in clinical practice.
“One major problem primary care providers face is a lack of time when meeting with patients,” said principal investigator Jennifer Haas, MD, a primary care provider. “Inside the clinic, most discussions about family history last less than 150 seconds, and 30 percent of providers are unable to take a family history at all.”
Another obstacle, Haas added, is that many patients are unprepared to answer questions about their family health history. A survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the majority of Americans have never documented their health history.
In the weeks prior to their visit, patients eligible to participate in the FLIGHT trial will receive a letter with an informational brochure and a family tree. They will collect health history information from their relatives, and then enter the information electronically, prior to their visit, using a tool developed by the Surgeon General called “My Family Health Portrait.” Patients enrolled in the study will provide their family history to their primary care provider in one of three ways: by phone, using Patient Gateway or on a laptop computer in their doctor’s waiting room. Once the physician approves his or her patient’s information, the data is coded into the “family history” section of that patient’s electronic health record.
“The ‘My Family Health Portrait’ tool is open to the public, but the FLIGHT project is one of the first to link this application to patients’ medical records,” said Beatriz H. Rocha, MD, PhD, of Information Systems, a senior researcher of the study. “FLIGHT has been instrumental in building the technological infrastructure to incorporate patient generated data into electronic health records.”
Some patients will receive a follow-up survey asking whether they discussed their family history with their doctor, whether they were satisfied with the family history collection tools and what they perceive their risk to be for certain hereditary conditions. Others will be called by a genetics counselor to assess the accuracy of the family health information they provided. Physicians will also be given a questionnaire asking about their habits in obtaining family histories, as well as how well the study technology integrated with their workflow.
“The impact of the study has the potential to extend far beyond the Partners network: the findings will be of significance to health care systems across the nation that are seeking to foster collaboration between patients and providers using health IT,” said Haas. “Ultimately, FLIGHT hopes to give clinicians and patients a valuable tool in their pursuit of excellent care, every day, without exception.”