When executives at Ancestry.com, the Provo, Utah-based genealogy giant, created the position overseeing its foray into health data, they purposely did not give it the title of chief medical officer.

Cathy Petti, M.D., is the chief health officer for AncestryHealth, Ancestry.com's entry into helping its members document their own health history as well as that of their relatives, "because your health is not just the organized field of medicine, it is much more than that," Petti said.

The website, currently in beta, is intended to give family health history its rightful place in the interaction between consumers and their healthcare providers as the age of data-enabled personalized medicine dawns.

"When we try to ask questions about family health history, often either the individual is rushed or the practitioner is rushed, and that history doesn't get the attention it should," Petti said. "We are trying to say your family health history is extremely unique to you as an individual, and arguably one of the best tools for personalized medicine data available today. And we really believe that preserving this health history can really provide insights not only to you, but also to your provider."

Also See: Data for 100,000 Californians Powering Disease Research

Petti stressed that the site, which launched July 16, is still in its infancy. As such, the company has not negotiated any sort of data integration partnerships with EHR vendors or health systems – at this point, a patient who creates a family health history on the Ancestry Health site, free of charge, can print out a copy and give it to their care provider "so together you can determine if there are preventive strategies or early interventions you need to discuss, or what kinds of behaviors might need to be entertained to improve your current health or preserve your health."

Meanwhile, she said, Ancestry is exploring options where the company will be directly able to collaborate with "health-minded stakeholders" for electronic exchange via EHRs or other electronic methods.

Though the Ancestry.com genealogy platform contains some 16 billion records in 70 million family trees, Petti said the family health histories that will go into AncestryHealth will be provided by users themselves, and medical conditions of ancestors will not be part of the data.

"The data that affects an individual, and his or her siblings, parents, and grandparents is much more relevant and current," she said. "If you go over, say, 150 yrs ago, the accuracy of that data is dubious. We know it's important to have the most accurate data possible to make meaningful conclusions possible."

The company has not divulged any possible combination of data or services that the new platform might share with its AncestryDNA technology, which was launched in 2012, but in an industry where consumers often move from one insurer with every change in employment, Petti said Ancestry's inherent appreciation for the long view will also encourage a more longitudinal resource than many consumers – and researchers, for that matter – currently have.

"We've had a long history of being very mindful that things are longitudinal," she said. "Having experience in genealogy for the past decade, and with our DNA ethnicity product since 2012, we all understand the importance of aggregating data that we've done historically. We are in the early stages of health, but seeing what we've done in ancestry, we are exploring ways to think about things in this longer view and aggregating meaningful data, not just data for data's sake."

She also said control over consumer data will remain with the consumer, and, in addition to not charging users to use the tool, they also will have control over whether or not their data, which would be de-identified, will be used for research.

The potential for largescale analysis is a given at Ancestry, however; just days after AncestryHealth launched, the company announced an agreement between AncestryDNA and  Google-Funded Calico Life Sciences to analyze and investigate the role of genetics and its influences in families experiencing unusual longevity using Ancestry's proprietary databases, tools and algorithms. Calico will then focus its efforts to develop and commercialize any potential therapeutics that emerge from the analysis. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Health Data Management content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access