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Create a Personal Medical History

Your doctors keep records, you need to as well

En español | Do you know the last time you had a tetanus shot? Can you name all the doctors you’ve seen in the past five years or all the conditions you’ve been treated for? It can be difficult to remember everything about your health history. But an easy solution is available – write it all down.

See also: Manage your family's health information with AARP Health Record.

A written health history can improve the health care you receive and help you stay well. It’s also the best way to make your information available quickly to pass along to doctors and nurses. You can use your personal medical history to:

  • Remember when it’s time for a screening or a test
  • To keep track of any medications you may be on
  • Keep track of who in your family had an illness or disease that could put you at risk
  • To keep track of allergies, if you have any
  • Recall when symptoms for an illness began, got worse or better, and ended

A health history also helps people with chronic illnesses manage their conditions better by tracking flare-ups and their possible causes. For instance, noting when you began a new medication could explain a sudden spike in blood pressure.

Many think of a medical record as something only a doctor's office handles. But according to Bill Thomas, M.D., a geriatric medicine and eldercare expert and AARP visiting scholar, keeping a personal health history is one of the most important steps people can take to improve the safety and quality of the health care they receive. "Nowadays, patients are partners with their doctors, and things work best when both partners are involved with the task of keeping accurate records," he says. "A personal medical record can be a real lifesaver."

Having a record of your health is especially handy when you have limited time during a doctor's visit. Information a doctor might need to diagnose and treat you will be at your fingertips. Knowing which tests and treatments you’ve already had might keep your doctor from unnecessarily repeating them. Having your own records is also helpful when you travel, or if you switch doctors and your office medical records get lost or don’t follow you to the new office. An organized document or file with your information could be critical if a friend or family member needs to assist in your medical care or make decisions on your behalf.

What to include
You don’t have to be an organization freak to keep health records. Nor do you need to spend countless hours of time at your desk or computer. (See the box on page 2 for forms and web tools you can use.) At its simplest, your record should include:

  • Your name, birth date and blood type
  • Information about your allergies, including drug and food allergies; details about chronic conditions you have 
  • A list of all the medications you use, the dosages and how long you’ve been taking them
  • The dates of your doctor's visits
  • The dates and results of tests, procedures or health screenings
  • Information about any major illnesses or surgeries you’ve had

Next: Write it down in a journal. »

Other useful info to include

  • The addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of your pharmacist and doctors
  • The illnesses that have occurred in your family, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and mental health conditions
  • The name and phone number of an emergency contact or caregiver
  • The name, policy number, address and telephone number of your health insurance company
  • Whether or not you have an advance directive or living will, and where it is
  • Any organ donor authorizations you've made
  • Important opinions and correspondence from specialists and providers
  • Your vision and dental records
  • Any permission forms for release of information, operations and other medical procedures
  • A history of any counseling you've received
  • Notes about your lifestyle habits: smoking, drinking, sleep, exercise, eating (how much, how often)

Keep a health journal
If you want to maintain a more thorough health history, you can try journaling. For instance, you can keep a diary to record your emotions, when you have allergic reactions, or your eating, exercising or sleeping habits. You can write down questions for your doctor and keep track of how you were feeling or what was going on in your life at given times. Such journals can help you spot trends and take a broader look at your health. For example, a journal might help you realize if you’ve become depressed, that you’ve stop exercising or have developed a new physical health problem.

Where to write it down
It doesn’t really matter where you keep your information so long as your record is readily accessible, portable and secure. You can add your information to a spiral or loose-leaf notebook, or a chart or spreadsheet. You can enter your information into a document stored on your computer or a USB flash drive, which can be plugged into any computer with a USB port.

Additionally, many companies and organizations offer websites where you can enter and store your health information. (See the box above.) Some sites are free; others charge a fee or subscription. If you do use an online service, carefully read the privacy policy to confirm that the only people with access to your information are those to whom you’ve specifically granted permission. If the privacy policy is hard to find on the site or difficult to understand, store your information elsewhere. Also, before entering any personal health information into a website, be sure you can permanently remove all of your data at any time and for any reason.

If you’re new to recording your health history, start with the basics and build from there. It’s never too late to start. The next time you’re desperately trying to remember when you had your last physical, you’ll be glad you wrote down the date.

You may also like: Asking questions about your diagnosis.