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How to talk health during T-Day

If you’re looking for a conversation starter this Thanksgiving, the country’s top public health doctor has a suggestion – find out about your family’s health history.

Talking about diseases might not be your family's ideal topic for a holiday – but US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin says one approach is to start very general.

"If you start at the dinner table talking about what things run in families, you can take it from there and go deeper later on," she says. After dinner, you might sit down with a parent or uncle or grandparent, and get some details.

Dr. Benjamin spoke by phone from her hometown on Alabama’s gulf coast, where she used to run a rural clinic. She says she's been trying to collect family history for years, and she always learns something new.

"One of my grandfathers, for example, they always said he died of an enlarged heart. We didn’t know what an enlarged heart was -- nobody knew. I eventually found out it was congestive heart failure," she says.

Beyond strokes and cancers, there are eye problems or mental issues that might be passed on, or skip generations. That type of family history can help a doctor customize his or her advice.

Getting started ...

If you’re going to do this, it really helps to have a computer handy – because the Surgeon General's office teamed up with Microsoft to create a website where you can fill in the blanks and end up with a quality health-history in about 15-20 minutes.

The data gets saved to your computer, and you can always add to it later.


From the Surgeon General's office:

"An Internet-based tool, My Family Health Portrait, lets anyone create a portrait of the family's health history.  It is available on the Surgeon General’s site at

"How can I encourage other family members to share their health information?

"Privacy is important, and no one should be forced to share personal health information if they don't wish to. But knowledge of family health histories may be spread over different family members, so sharing can help create the best product. Maybe the best way to encourage sharing is to help make it clear how this information can help health care practitioners provide better care and make more informed decisions.

"What security precautions should I take when I share information with relatives?

"Since the information that is aggregated by the FHH tool is personal health information, you should take reasonable precautions when sending this information to relatives. You should encrypt the information before sending it via email. If you don't have access to encrypted email; it may be better to transfer the information on a CD or memory stick; either in person or by regular mail.

"What if my knowledge about my family health history is incomplete or imprecise?

"Very few people are likely to have detailed and precise information about their family members/ health histories. But any information can be helpful. Once you have completed your history, it is important to talk about it with your health care practitioner. He or she may be able to help provide perspective, or even provide more detail based on the knowledge you bring."

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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