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The surgeon general's office issued the first attempt to guide creation of family health trees in 2004, with a form patients could print out and carry to the doctor.
On Tuesday, the site reopens -- at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov -- after a high-tech facelift to make it not only more in-depth but truly electronic.
It's private; users download the information to their own computers. Then they can e-mail a tree-in-progress to family members to fill in missing information.
And with a simple keystroke, relatives can "reindex" the tree so that instead of showing the biggest health risks for Cousin Sue who started the project, Cousin Bill can see what risks are more prone to his side of the family.
Finally, the tool is readable, even customizable, by many of the computer systems that doctors are using to create "electronic medical records," something Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt calls key to ushering in better quality health care.
The family physicians' Henley says even if your doctor hasn't gone digital, keeping a printout of the tree's detailed information in a patient's chart still provides crucial information, such as steering someone away from gene tests they don't really need.
But a small pilot study at Partners Healthcare in Boston suggests the digital potential. Embedding the e-family tree straight into software that adds in a patient's test and exam results produced a personalized report on cancer risk in minutes.
"This is the new frontier," says Leavitt, who points to a family that discovered a pattern of inherited colorectal cancer and now is exploring earlier colonoscopies to prevent death. "Information is at the root of good health."
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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