The Associated Press ran a provocatively titled piece recently, "Family health history: 'best kept secret' in care", which noted how a geneticist at the Cleveland Clinic discovered that asking about family members and their history of breast, colon, or prostate cancer was better than simply doing genetic blood testing.
Surprising? Hardly. This is what all medical students are taught. Talk to the patient. Get a detailed history and physical. Lab work and imaging studies are merely tools that can help support or refute a diagnosis. They provide a piece of the puzzle, but always must be considered in the full context of a patient. They alone do not provide the truth.
A tool to help organize the family history can be found at the US Surgeon General's website.
The challenge is being able to have a candid conversation with a doctor as office visits seem to be shorter. Filling out this simple one page "patient resume" may help. Give it to your doctor, particularly if she is new to you, especially when having a general check-up. That is a good time to have a robust discussion about what you must do to stay healthy and well.
Why is this important? First year medical students often ask me how do they know what parts of taking a patient's history, a person's past medical history, surgical history, family history, and social history (smoking, alcohol, drug habits) can be safely skipped or ignored. In other words, already early in their careers they want to hone down, eliminate unnecessary time and unneeded questioning to clinch the diagnosis. They want to be good doctors.
They quickly discover that good doctors can't know a patient's problems or symptoms without understanding the whole story. Good doctors get the complete story to get the best answer. Trying to piece a problem together by ordering tests, blood work, or xrays won't get to the truth, even though we still fool ourselves into thinking they can. As this news article demonstrates despite all of the advances in technology, there is still value and power in simply talking and listening to patients thoughtfully.