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Libraries and Health Questions

We know that health related questions are among the top questions received by reference librarians in libraries. I’ve also seen research that shows that librarians answering medical questions in healthcare environments has material positive impacts on patient health. There is a plethora of medical information on the web too. It runs the gamut of truly awful and dangerous information to very helpful information and links to support groups, people who’ve been there. My personal experience with health information is that the literacy levels are different than just plain reading skills. I am a decent researcher and I can’t interpret and understand some of the medical information I find about the conditions I search for myself or family. I often joke that no one should search Medline for their own condition without a scotch rocks at hand. It’s scary.

With the aging population we have every reason to believe that health questions and needs will increase quickly. We also can guess that health literacy will not keep up with medical information availability and access.

Here is a posting about barriers to asking your doctor questions. Read it first.

5 Reasons Why People Don’t Ask Their Doctor Questions

The top 5 according to this are:

1. “Fear – fear of what the doctor may think of them, fear of what the doctor may say, fear of looking or sounding stupid in front of the doctor, fear of getting the wrong answer.
2, The doctor knows best – if something is important the doctor will mention it, if I need the test the doctor will order it, and so on.
3. Not wanting to interrupt – office visits follow a clear pattern: opening statement, medical interview and exam, diagnosis, treatment and closing. Other than during their opening statement, most patients realize that the doctor does most of the talking.
4. Not being asked by the doctor if they have any questions – studies show that physicians do not ask patients if they have any questions in more than 50 percent of office visits.
5. Feeling rushed – feeling that their question isn’t really all that important after all.”

Here are some of my thoughts on libraries and medical / health questions:

1. If this is one of our top questions, do we have enough programming relating to or print and digital collections to align with it. How about diet and nutrition collections and promoting our cookbook and health collections? How about seniors daytime programming or outreach to partners (hospitals, community centres, seniors homes, etc.) on chronic conditions and therapies (arthritis and rheumatism, pain, exercise/falls, safer homes, etc.)?

2. Are our reference areas conducive to supporting health questions? What are the opportunities for privacy? Is the area too public? Would you ask questions you need to ask your doctor as an informed patient in the public area of your local library? Do we promote confidential options and philosophies? My bank does at the teller with a simple sign, do libraries?

3. Are we promoting this service well enough? Can we tell stories about helping people with their health issues and goals?

4. Are we approachable? Do we acknowledge thatn some of use may not be as approachable for whatever reason because of some fears on the user’s part? I think that we can admt that we may not be equally approachable to teens as seniors, or men versus women, or whatever. We may all have comfort levels with certain preferences for service.

5. On a personal note, I probably won’t discuss my medical issues with everyone. I will go online. Library users are not that different on this point. I think that libraries’ websites and the web in general receive a ton of medical inquiries. I worry that the average user may not realize that the quality of the resources available with their library cards is amazing. We need to speak up for our resources.

6. I think that virtual access to digital health resources offer many benefits that address soe of the doctor, librarian and user issues/carriers. It can be private; you can avoid embarrassment or fear of embarrassment; you can become a more knowledgeable consumer of health professionals’ services; you can print your stuff out and share it with your doctor; you can get lists of questions to ask and information to understand the answers; and more.

7. Many people are searching on health resources for others – their kids, parents, and friends. People care and we do too. Is there a difference in the service for the ultimate beneficiary of the information and the intermediary? Can they print, e-mail, tag, etc. to put together a reading package for the person and their doctor. I personally know quite a few people who saved the life of a loved one with library research.

8. Are your driving users to your health resources? It’s easily within our skills. We can build bibliographies and webliographies on top topics. We can put widgets on our websites and Facebook pages. We can run programs. We can blog about our resources – print and digital. We can do lots.

Health questions are a sweet spot for library strategies. They’re what we call the low hanging fruit. They are freighted with a modicum of discomfort too.

Let’s try to up our game here. Gale has free widgets and we have some great health and wellness databases.


Posted on: September 15, 2010, 11:30 am Category: Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Judith Siess said

    why not partner with a local medical librarian–to have him/her come to the library once a week or so and hold “office hours”?

  2. Jackie Davis said

    As a consumer health librarian in a hospital library, I know that folks ask very specific and revealing questions here! Health literacy and the library are a hand in glove collaboration. Check out the wonderful resource that has been developed in California: Finding Health and Wellness @ Your Library: A Consumer Health Toolkit for Library Staff –

  3. Or a public library partner with a public health dept./unit/public health nurse for wellness week or similar? Also partner with a pharmacist. They already provide some advice on over the counter drugs at the pharmacies. How about a registered dietician and someone from Weight Watchers? Now that, might bring out enough people and make use of your healthy cooking books. 🙂

    Some great opportunities, if not done already.

  4. a grant from the Va. Tobacco Commission has funded a program called Health Information & Advocacy@yourlibrary in my county–we are guinea pigs for this program that is branching out across the Commonwealth as we speak. The program consists of a vetted website for info as well as 1/4 time health information specialist to do programs and meet one on one for reference, as well as train library staff. Great grant, great product, for all the reasons you list above. visit our website and check it out: