Hungry for Health Information

Patrons turn to libraries for health literacy

February 11, 2018

National Network of Libraries of Medicine Community Engagement and Outreach Coordinator Bobbi Newman debunks a widely circulated, highly misleading health news story as part of “The Health Needs of Your Community Are Increasing. How Will You Meet Them?” at the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits.

“I heard that eating dark chocolate will give me a six-pack.” “My father was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I need to figure out what to do.” “Will you look at this rash?”

Patients today are now expected to be more involved in making decisions about their health, and as they search for information librarians are often asked questions like the ones above. In her presentation, “The Health Needs of Your Community Are Increasing. How Will You Meet Them?,” Bobbi Newman, a community engagement and outreach coordinator for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM), addressed the role that libraries might be expected to play as people become more responsible for their own health care. The presentation was held during the 2018 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Denver as part of the Symposium on the Future of Libraries.

Newman began her presentation by sharing statistics from a Pew study that showed the extent to which people are seeking health information online. According to the report, health is the second most searched-for topic online. Four in five searches start with a large search engine, but less than a quarter verify the date or source. Even savvy information consumers can be fooled by misleading, clickbait titles, which Newman illustrated with a series of widely circulated and totally false news pieces (for example: experts say that drinking wine before bed will make you skinny!). As trusted sources of information, librarians are well-positioned to increase the health literacy of their patrons.

Newman acknowledged that the health reference interview can be difficult for librarians because reference librarians are not able to give medical advice. She provided several online health resources that librarians can point their patrons to without the dramatic and frequent WebMD misdiagnosis of black plague. Many of these resources come from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), but as one attendee pointed out, not all communities trust government resources, so librarians sometimes need to do extra work to help their patrons understand why the information on the NIH website actually is more reliable than most for-profit websites.

Newman wrapped up the session with information about the resources and funding provided by NNLM regional offices.

There seems to be a theme emerging, through the Symposium for the Future of Libraries, of libraries taking on the role of health literacy educator, from teaching healthy cooking habits to addressing opioid use. In this vein, some attendees of this session wondered how their role as a community health resource will increase as healthcare costs in the United States continue to rise.


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