E

very patient knows the drill. Going to the hospital means filling out forms, and somewhere on that form is a place to list an emergency contact, with name, address, phone number, and relationship — just in case.

A study published Thursday in Cell found a novel use for that information. Analyzing data pulled from electronic health records representing a diverse, multiethnic population of patients at three New York hospitals, researchers from Columbia University wove a network of 7.4 million family connections. Those relationships confirmed family patterns already recognized in, for example, type 2 diabetes. They also reported new connections — “good” cholesterol is more heritable than “bad” — that could potentially help understand disease and improve ways to treat it.

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