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Making the Family Tree a Decision Support Tool

Ancestry.com's new venture will supply clinicians with instant access to a patient's family history - and make the EMR more robust

By Eric Wicklund

- One of the most vital – and often incomplete – elements of point-of-care clinical decision support is the family history. Too often clinicians have to rely on a paper questionnaire handed out in the waiting room and filled out by a patient who’s far more interested in getting help than checking boxes.

A familiar (though unexpected) source is aiming to make that tool more accurate.

Ancestry.com, the consumer-facing website well-known for its TV ads offering a deep dive into a user’s family tree, is making a push into the healthcare market with the hiring of its first-ever chief health officer. The goal is to take advantage of America’s fascination with genealogy and its access to mHealth platforms to create an instant gateway to a patient’s family history – and in so doing create a more robust electronic medical record.

“Health does not need to be medical and health does not need to be institutionalized,” said Cathy A. Petti, MD, a longtime physician who became Ancestry.com’s CHO in July. With access to more than 16 billion records and the creation of some 70 million family trees, she said, the foundation is in place to create a network that enables users to share their family history with their doctors and nurses, giving them access to important data that could affect clinical outcomes.

Ancestry.com made its mark in the genealogy market, selling consumers on the ability to research and assemble their family tree. The company followed that with AncestryDNA, through which it has mapped some 1 million genotyped customers in little more than three years. Their latest offering, AncestryHealth, was borne out of the company’s interest in connecting with the provider market and serving as a bridge between the consumer and the doctor.

“Family health history is the most effective screening tool,” said Petti, a world-renowned global health and clinical diagnostics expert who most recently founded and served as president of the concierge medicine consulting company HealthSpring Global. The root causes of many an illness, she said, can be traced back to family health history, from chronic diseases like cystic fibrosis, cancer or heart disease to ethnic or cultural considerations like climate and diet.

"Ancestry fundamentally believes family history is a powerful tool that not only can educate individuals about their past and where they came from, but can inform their future," Tim Sullivan, Ancestry’s CEO, said when launching AncestryHealth and bringing Dr. Petti aboard last July. "This new service leverages expert research and delivers customized information to consumers about the risks and prevention measures to help empower them to make healthy lifestyle choices. Combined with the breadth and scale of Ancestry data, we expect AncestryHealth to be a key piece of the puzzle as we look to understand how health is passed down through generations, and we are excited to have Dr. Petti lead this effort."

Petti believes the new service is more than a consumer-facing tool. She says healthcare providers need a better link to a patient’s family history than the paper questionnaire, or even the online survey. That data needs to be thorough and reliable, she said, and linked to the electronic medical record. And it needs to be available at a moment’s notice, on the device of their choosing.

As the recent Ebola outbreak in sub-Saharan Africa can attest, healthcare works best when clinicians have access to reliable health data at the point of care, enabling them to make accurate clinical decisions. Imagine a doctor at a remote clinic – or even a busy ER – who’s presented with a confusing case, who can quickly delve into an EMR that includes family history and which may provide clues to a diagnosis. Or a clinician treating a patient with breast cancer, and wanting to know whether it runs in the family.

Petti feels the emerging mHealth landscape will work best when it takes advantage of resources both inside and outside the traditional healthcare hierarchy. AncestryHealth is poised, she said, to offer new value to providers, and give them a tool that can only improve clinical outcomes.

“Health is all about partnerships,” she said. “We’re going to be leaders in that field.”

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