Family Tree: Importance of knowing family history

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Understanding your family history can give your primary care physician the context they need to find the root of your illness. If you have the opportunity, talk with your family members about the history of illness in your family. You can’t tell your doctor what you don’t know, which is why it's important to have conversations with multiple family members to see who has been sick and with what illness.

We have a number of patient stories online, one of the cases highlights the importance of knowing your family history.

Donna, a nurse for more than 30 years, was one of my patients that came in for her annual examine, during which we found that she had abnormal liver enzymes. Knowing that Donna’s family has a history of abnormal liver enzymes, that her mom suffered from non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, and that her cousin was recently diagnosed with liver cancer, I knew that finding abnormal enzymes in Donna’s liver was significant. In order to help diagnose her, I referred Donna to Dr. Malcom Stark, a gastroenterologist, for an ultrasound and biopsy of her liver. The tests showed Donna had liver inflammation as well as fatty liver and scarring.

Over the next two years I saw Donna every six months to retest her liver enzymes, and when they showed no signs of returning to normal, I diagnosed her with NASH (Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis). NASH is liver inflammation and damage caused by a buildup of fat in the liver. It is part of a group of conditions called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. There is no known cure, but it is slow to progress and can be stabilized through diet and exercise, which is why I recommended Donna adopt the paleo diet and regular exercise. Two years after she committed herself to a healthier lifestyle, her liver enzymes were normal.

Sometimes family history is the missing piece to the puzzle, and communicating with your doctor can help lead to a diagnosis. Find a primary care physician who takes the time to listen to you, invest the time to let them get to know you and you are more likely to catch illnesses in their early stages. No piece of information is too insignificant for your doctor. He or she will use all the information you give them, their findings, and the conclusions of specialists if the situation calls for one. At Cone Health, primary care physicians and specialists work together and across their network to find the best care for you.

Spokesperson Background:

Dr. John Jenkins currently serves as a Vice President at Cone Health for Telehealth and is Executive Medical Director of the Primary Care Collaborative – a think tank for innovation in delivery, access, and sustainability for primary care. In partnership with a team of Cone Health executives, Dr. Jenkins has led the development of Cone Health’s Telehealth platform for video and telephonic visits as well as E-visits through MyChart.

Prior to his work in the collaborative, Dr. Jenkins first served as Primary Care Division Chief and then as Practice President of LeBauer HealthCare, a 90 plus physician multispecialty group. He trained in Internal Medicine in Charleston, South Carolina at the Medical University of South Carolina.