Family physician Vincent WinklerPrins, an associate professor of family medicine at the Georgetown University Medical Center, suggests that everyone keep a portable, personal health record of some sort — paper works fine, though there are online and flash drive options as well.
So, what specific information should you chronicle and stay up-to-date with?
Immunization status. Most parents are keenly aware of the importance of documenting their children’s vaccinations for school entry, sports clearance and the like, but how about your own shot record? “The last time adults think about immunizations is generally when they go off to college, but [they] may not be aware that things need updating or that there are new vaccines they should consider,” depending on such factors as age, health status and travel plans, says WinklerPrins. For example, he notes, it’s important once a decade to get a tetanus booster. That shot is now typically combined with a vaccine against pertussis, or whooping cough, which has been on the rise in recent years.
Drug allergies. It’s important to know not only what medications you’re allergic to but also what your exact reaction to each offender is. “Do you get a bad rash, have breathing difficulties, serious abdominal pain or a loss of blood pressure? Did you have to go to the emergency room, or was it just an intolerance to a drug — like it made your stomach upset and you threw up?” says WinklerPrins. “The more specific you can be, the better.”
Name and dosage
current medications. This includes a vigilant recounting of all of the over-the-counter drugs you’re taking, as well as any vitamins or supplements. “We need to know precisely what you’re taking, because many medications may have drug interactions . . . and side effects can run people into trouble,” says WinklerPrins. Montalbano points out that there’s more to know than just how much of which drug you’re taking, such as the full range of their potential side effects and proper storage instructions. “There’s no excuse for patients not to empower themselves, because every prescription you pick up from the pharmacy has a three- to four-page handout that’s chock-full of information,” he says. “The more you know, the easier it is to have a conversation with your doctor about any issues or problems that come up.”
Prior surgeries and conditions. You’d be surprised how many people can’t recall whether they had their appendix out as a child and similar key facts, says WinklerPrins. “These days, so many people have had laparoscopic surgery, and sometimes you can barely tell if they’ve had an operation [just by looking at them],” he adds, noting that not only is the type of procedure you had done important, but also when, since surgical procedures have changed over time. “Whatever it is — a partial hysterectomy, a vasectomy, a breast lump removed — even a little bit more detail, so we know exactly what part was removed and what the findings were, is helpful.”
Family history. Keeping close track of your parents’ and siblings’ medical problems (including age of onset) is extremely useful, along with causes and ages of death, says WinklerPrins. He stresses that medical professionals are particularly interested in any premature deaths — meaning before age 55 for men and age 65 for women. “A well-documented family history can often . . . help us by homing in on what’s relevant and determining when we screen for certain things,” he explains. Bear in mind, says Montalbano, that “family history does not predict the future health of that person, but it provides an assessment of risk to that patient.”
Beyond this, Montalbano recommends that those who have chronic conditions — migraines, rashes, sleep disorders, depression, any pain syndrome or even a persistent cough — keep a comprehensive log of the frequency and intensity of their symptoms.
“There are a lot of cases where people come to me and I will run a workup but nothing shows up,” he says. “What I have to fall back on is the realization that the test that we have is not sensitive enough to pick up on this malady, and often the only way to get to the bottom of it is with the patient’s symptom diary.” A detailed journal can help you understand that you seem to get blinding headaches about twice a month, and often when the weather is humid, which Montalbano says is much more useful in the diagnosis and treatment process than simply reporting that you get them “frequently” or “every so often.”
What don’t you need to know off the top of your head?
While being able to rattle off your blood type may provide some clues about your risk of heart disease (a recent study found that those with type AB blood may have a higher chance of problems than those with an O blood type), it’s not considered a necessary piece of information. “It’s only relevant if [you are] giving or receiving blood, “ and even then, by law, you must be tested and typed.
It’s also not worth knowing your DNA profile — and shelling out the big bucks to have your DNA sequenced. “Right now, for me as a family doctor, your genetic fingerprint means very little — we just won’t know how to interpret this information for a while — but I think the day will come, and it will come quickly, especially in a place like D.C.,” says WinklerPrins. However, he speculates that personalized DNA data will eventually inform many aspects of medicine, including risk analysis for health conditions and diseases, potential responses to medications, and more.
Still, for now, just bringing the basic information to the table can help your dialogue with a physician and result in better care. “Of course, we [doctors] don’t expect that people are going to be able to interpret all of this data on family history, test results and the like,” says Montalbano. “But it’s my job to help patients sift through all the information they bring to me, and then help them make decisions based on their best interest, and not anyone else’s.”