Bass Connections: Family Health History Wrap-up

Family health history collection is one of the most important tools for guiding clinical decision making. That’s why Duke researchers developed MeTree—a patient-facing family health history collection tool that collects both family and personal health history while generating immediate, action-oriented suggestions tailored for both patients and physicians–-a big improvement compared to the previous methods of collection. 

Despite drastic progress in tools and software, barriers to collecting complete and high-quality family health history information remain. Research demonstrates that certain demographics (e.g., men and college students) are more reluctant to collect and share this information—despite its major clinical utility.

The 2017 – 2018 Bass Connections “Enabling Precision Health and Medicine” team—an interdisciplinary group of graduate and undergraduate researchers led by Dr. Susanne Haga—came together to develop some solutions. After researching the attitudes and perceptions of various demographics, the Bass Connections team decided to look for successful health communication techniques to best realize the potential of family health history collection on health and risk assessment.

“Although certain family history collection barriers like adoption aren’t easy to solve, many of the common misconceptions and concerns that act as the biggest obstacles have simple solutions if they are communicated in a way that patients can easily understand,” said Emily Bullis, the lead graduate researcher on the Bass Connections Team. 

To address these common concerns and communicate the value of family health history for improving health outcomes, the Bass Connections team decided to develop and test a new education tool: a narrative-style educational video that provided guidance for the most common barriers to family health history collection.

The undergraduate team leader—Sarina Madhavan—described how the narrative format of their intervention made their video distinct from other health education videos. “We were so excited to frame our video in a narrative form because studies have demonstrated that doing so can bring health realities and disease risk closer to home. We hope our video can use narratives and stories to help activate patients who may not otherwise be interested in collecting family health history.”

The team developed a narrative script and worked with Duke Media Services to develop the video, casting Duke faculty, students and MeTree developer Dr. Lori Orlando as the lead actors. The video included advice for collecting health history and communication strategies; addressed various family dynamics; supplied a “question toolkit” for family members; and provided reassurance about common privacy concerns regarding health history collection and sharing.

After developing the video, the Bass Connections team spent the last few months testing the narrative video intervention against more traditional written educational materials in an online study.

“We leveraged all our connections as a team to broadcast the study to a wide population. While it was relatively easy to recruit students on campus, we made every effort to engage the elder and under-educated populations as well,” said Chris Zhou, an undergraduate researcher on the team. “Preliminary results are promising,” he said. “Study participants who viewed the video were significantly more likely to have positive attitudes towards and higher perceived utility of family health history collection and MeTree.”