Getting a patient's family history is widely regarded as a standard element of good medical care. But a report published today concludes that there isn't much good evidence that obtaining such information improves doctors' ability to predict and manage disease.

In addition, the report's authors say the best way to collect family history data is unclear, as is the impact on patient outcomes and behaviors.

Dr. Brenda J. Wilson, from University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and colleagues did a study of previous studies on the subject, and report their findings in the online version of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

They found only two studies that tried to determine whether accurate family histories were likely to have an impact on care, and those studies had a number of limitations.

They found more studies of how patients reported their family histories. In 23 studies, they saw evidence that patients were more accurate about reporting the absence of disease in relatives than the presence of disease. Perhaps not surprisingly, patients were more accurate about their first degree relatives than their distant relatives.

The study was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, 2009.