Health awareness

Improving medical care in the Black community with family health histories

Why creating a family health history tree can help build trust and empower you to be your own voice in the doctor’s office

July 20, 2021

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extended family sitting together outside

For a lot of families, talking about health issues may not be something typically brought up at the dinner table—or a family reunion.

“There were reservations about talking about the family history,” says Ruby Holmes, senior specialist in clinical data management at Merck. “It’s one of those things that just didn’t get talked about a lot until something happened or someone was very sick.”

Holmes, a 68-year-old African American breast cancer survivor, says that when she was growing up, trips to the doctor ‘wasn’t something that was done on a regular basis.’

Knowing your family’s medical history can often help physicians pinpoint family traits that may put you at a higher risk for certain conditions. Once doctors know that a certain disease or health issue runs in your family, they can typically recommend a more personalized prevention program that could include lifestyle changes and screening tests.

It was a “huge wakeup call” when Damian Perkins, a customer manager in oncology sales, found out his family had a deep history of health issues.

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“Seeing all of these health problems happen to the men, in particular, in my family has definitely made me more aware of staying ahead of the game.”

Damian Perkins

“I’ve taken all of that information and have either stored it as a knowledge base or used it to make better decisions for myself,” says Perkins.

The importance of open dialogue

Letitia Talbott, a senior specialist in clinical research, says she made a conscious effort to talk to her parents about their family’s health history.

“A lot of coronary issues run on my dad’s side of the family. So, as I got older and started having my own health issues, that spurred me to ask him whether uncle so-and-so had these issues– and come to find out, he did,” says Talbott.

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To get the family history conversation started, here are some questions to consider:

  1. What diseases or conditions did family member ‘X’ have?
  2. When was he/she diagnosed?
  3. What treatment options were offered to him/her?
  4. If applicable, at what age did he/she pass away and what was the cause of death?

Talbott has already shared family ties to conditions like hypertension (high blood pressure) with her 19-year-old daughter.

“It’s really important that she is aware of what’s going on in her health and what she’s predisposed to,” says Talbott.

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“If I had known some of the health issues that my family had, or if I knew about them earlier, maybe I would have adjusted and adapted my health behavior.”

Letitia Talbott

WATCH: President of Black Health Matters discusses why it’s important for the Black community to know their family health history

Roslyn Daniels video

Breaking down trust barriers

Gathering your family’s medical history is the first step in determining a healthier future, but to reap the benefits of having that knowledge, it’s important to take actionable steps—like having a discussion with your doctor about your family’s health and how it may apply to you.

While it might be challenging to find time to see a physician, extra barriers—like a lack of trust in health care, continues to keep many Black families out of their doctor’s office.

A recent report found 7 in 10 African Americans believe that people are treated unfairly based on race or ethnicity when they seek medical care.

Roslyn Daniels, the president and founder of Black Health Matters, says one reason for distrust among the Black community comes from the lack of Black doctors and health care professionals. 

The need for more Black doctors is not a new issue in the U.S. A 2021 online report found that the proportion of Black physicians in the U.S. has increased by only 4% over the past 120 years.

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“Research shows that Black people feel more comfortable and listened to when they're being treated by a Black physician.”

Roslyn Daniels

President & founder, Black Health Matters

“There’s that empathy level and that idea that someone is reflecting your culture or has a better understanding about your lifestyle,” says Daniels.

To help communities receive care from a more diverse workforce of physicians, several large medical associations have implemented new strategies to enhance recruitment and inclusive learning environments. Merck also continues to support efforts to address physician diversity by building powerful partnerships and leveraging community insights.

Knowing your family’s past for a healthier future

No matter what racial group your physician falls in, sharing your family medical history with them is an important part of building a strong and trusting relationship.

“We’re still kind of in the infancy stage of what it means to live a healthier life, and how one can benefit when they avail themselves of resources and become proactive and knowledgeable,” says Daniels. “I think Black men and women are going to be much more interested in understanding their family’s health history so that they can fight for better health outcomes.”