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Keywords:

  • family history;
  • sensitivity;
  • specificity;
  • accuracy;
  • bias

Abstract

There is a need to collect psychiatric family history information quickly and economically (e.g., for genome-wide studies and primary care practice). We sought to evaluate the validity of family history reports using a brief screening instrument, the Family History Screen (FHS). We assessed the validity of parents' reports of seven psychiatric disorders in their adult children probands from the Dunedin Study (n = 959, 52% male), using the proband's diagnosis as the criterion outcome. We also investigated whether there were informant characteristics that enhanced accuracy of reporting or were associated with reporting biases. Using reports from multiple informants, we obtained sensitivities ranging from 31.7% (alcohol dependence) to 60.0% (conduct disorder) and specificities ranging from 76.0% (major depressive episode) to 97.1% (suicide attempt). There was little evidence that any informant characteristics enhanced accuracy of reporting. However, three reporting biases were found: the probability of reporting disorder in the proband was greater for informants with versus without a disorder, for female versus male informants, and for younger versus older informants. We conclude that the FHS is as valid as other family history instruments (e.g., the FH-RDC, FISC), and its brief administration time makes it a cost-effective method for collecting family history data. To avoid biasing results, researchers who aim to compare groups in terms of their family history should ensure that the informants reporting on these groups do not differ in terms of age, sex or personal history of disorder. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.