Do Your Employees Know Their Family Health History?

When it comes to knowing what “runs in the family,” your employees probably have a scattered recollection — like remembering that Aunt Irene had some type of heart issue or that Grandpa Joe had lung cancer.

Beyond that, memories tend to get a little fuzzy. Aunt Irene’s heart issue might have been the result of a congenital defect she had since birth, for example, while Grandpa Joe may have been a lifelong smoker. Here’s why it’s important to get the details right.

The Value of a Family Health History

Without a written family health history that tracks these kinds of details, your employees might not have the information they need to make decisions about early screenings, genetic testing or lifestyle changes, according to the Mayo Clinic.

That increases the chances that an employee will develop an unchecked chronic condition like cancer, heart disease or diabetes, something that will both change that worker’s entire life and impact your bottom line. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each employee with a chronic condition costs employers about $1,685 annually in missed work.

While simply keeping a detailed family health history won’t necessarily prevent chronic issues (or absenteeism), it can help employees take precautions to stay healthy, as well as serve as a great tool to bring to checkups and discuss with their doctor.

But where do they begin — and how can you help?

Start by pointing them to the U.S. Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait. The comprehensive form has a space to fill out medical issues for each member in the bloodline, which will give employees a composite view of their family history.

Who — and What — Should Be Included?

The more relatives included in a family history the better. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends starting with immediate family members: parents, siblings and children. Then move to grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and half-siblings. Less crucial are cousins, great uncles and great aunts — but if there’s a way to get their information, it can only help.

Once equipped with the U.S. Surgeon General’s form and a list of relatives, your employees are ready to get started. Encourage them to think through medical history questions in advance to reveal potential problems that might be hereditary, such as:

  • Have you ever been diagnosed with a condition like cancer, hypothyroidism or diabetes?
  • Have you ever experienced a major health event, such as a stroke, heart attack or hospitalization for something else?
  • Have you ever had test results that were out of range, for example unusual blood pressure or cholesterol?
  • If you have a health condition, at what age were you when the issue first occurred?
  • Do you take any medications?
  • Have you ever had a problem getting or staying pregnant?
  • Do you know of any deceased relatives who had health problems? How old were they when they passed away?

Remind employees not to overlook issues relating to mental health or substance abuse. While they can be touchy topics, conditions like depression and alcoholism can increase the risk of other issues.

Spotting Red Flags

As employees dig into their family histories, they might notice patterns emerging, such as relatives who died at early ages or diseases that seem to run in the family. Some patterns may be simple coincidence, but others could pose a red flag worth mentioning to their doctor.

  • Breast, ovarian or colon cancer. These cancers can be genetic. If they’re present in the family, doctors may recommend earlier screening — for instance mammograms starting in a woman’s 40s or colonoscopies in a person’s 20s — or genetic testing to spot for BRCA mutations or Lynch syndrome.
  • Heart disease. Some people have a condition that elevates their cholesterol, which can raise the risk of heart disease. If there’s a family history of it, doctors might stress a healthy lifestyle on top of preventive tests or medications.
  • Diabetes. People with diabetics in the family have a higher risk of getting diabetes or prediabetes. A strong family history of diabetes might compel a doctor to recommend lifestyle changes or earlier screening.

If you launch a family health history initiative, you’re bound to be asked, “Will this impact my premiums?” To ease concerns, reassure employees that this information is theirs and theirs alone, and that it won’t negatively impact their cost of care. Instead, convey that it’s a tool for them to manage their health in a more informed way. And that’s a whole lot better than an uncertain recollection of Grandpa Joe’s health.

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