Check it out: libraries as health improvement partners

September 1, 2017


To empower the public to become better informed advocates for their own health, hospitals are teaming up with libraries. Saint Peter's University Hospital and other community partners in north-central New Jersey are encouraging libraries to play an integral role in improving health in their communities.

Nurse conducts blood pressure screening at library
Nurse Kathleen Iannuzzo, with Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., conducts a blood pressure screening at East Brunswick Public Library.

Public libraries in that region are joining a national network that provides greater access to evidence-based health information for patrons. Some librarians are becoming certified as consumer health information specialists. And Saint Peter's clinical care providers are holding health screening events at the libraries. (See sidebar, below.)

"The library is no longer a place people go (only) to read or check out a movie. It's a place people can go to improve their health," explained Zachary Taylor, Saint Peter's coordinator for community health improvement and for Healthier Middlesex, a regional health-focused collaboration.

While patrons have long visited libraries for health information, in the internet age, people got in the habit of going online for medical information. Trouble is, while there is an abundance of information, not all of it is reliable. So, increasingly people are turning to librarians to help them locate credibly sourced, trustworthy information.

Taylor said people with access to reliable health information, tailored to their needs, often become better advocates for their own health, able to communicate more productively with their health care providers and make informed decisions.

Partners in health
Saint Peter's and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital are both located in New Brunswick, the city that is home to Rutgers University. The hospitals are collaborating with area public libraries to improve health literacy and to link people to needed health care, starting with on-site health screenings at libraries. Health literacy is the degree to which a person has the capacity to obtain, process and understand health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.

The hospitals held two meetings last fall to encourage libraries to join the National Network of Libraries of Medicine's Middle Atlantic Region. Public libraries join the network for free. Member libraries and their cardholders get access to the network's resources and databases. Coordinated by the National Library of Medicine, the network is made up of health science libraries and information centers. Network members get access to the latest health care data, training on how to search it, and grant opportunities for libraries, said Karen Parry, manager of information services for the East Brunswick Public Library.

Member libraries can host the organization's traveling exhibits on subjects that include everything from work to improve global health to the role of a physician assistant in health care.

Leaders from half of the 28 public libraries in Middlesex County attended one of the two informational meetings. A representative from adjacent Somerset County also attended on behalf of that county's public libraries. Since the meetings, a dozen libraries in the two counties have joined the medical information network, Taylor said. And the recruitment continues this month, with a symposium for librarians and those working in health care on the role for libraries in improving a community's health.

Lingering questions
Now the hospitals are spreading the word to librarians that they can become certified as consumer health information specialists. The librarians do this by attending 12 or 24 hours of online or in-person training depending on the level of expertise they seek. The Medical Library Association, a Chicago-based association of health information specialists, approves the courses for the certifications; the courses often are taught by National Network of Libraries of Medicine instructors.

Librarians going through the consumer health training get introduced to medical and research databases they may not be familiar with, and tips on how to search them. They learn how to ask questions of someone with a health concern in order to best tailor a search. And they learn to adapt the format of the information to serve the patron. That involves everything from providing information keyed to a person's comprehension level, enlarging font size or providing audio materials for a patron with impaired vision to accessing translations of materials for non-native speakers.

Marge Drozd, director of community health services for Saint Peter's, said, "Sometimes when you're in a doctor's office, you don't have the presence of mind to ask the right questions, or you're intimidated, or you don't think of questions until you're out of the doctor's office." The consumer health librarians can provide health or scientific information in answer to many of those questions.

Information partners
Currently, several librarians in the two counties are pursuing the certification. Several already have it, including five librarians at the East Brunswick Public Library; some of them earned the certification several years ago.

Many health consumer librarians in the two-county area go out into their communities, to senior centers and health fairs. A person with a health-related question fills out a form, which includes a disclaimer explaining the library will provide information, not medical advice. A librarian scours the virtual stacks and the library's source materials for salient information, writes a cover letter and emails or mails the packet to the person who made the query.

Sonal Shukla, who is a consumer health librarian at the East Brunswick Public Library, said questions on topics like diet or conditions like high blood pressure are fairly standard. But other questions, such as when a person is trying to decide what medical procedure is more effective, can require a more layered approach to research — and an emphatic disclaimer.

"We are information partners. We are not providing advice," she said. The librarians are clear with people that they need to consult with doctors on medical decisions.


Libraries as community hubs for health outreach

Libraries' contributions to improve the health of a community can extend beyond providing credible information on wellness and disease, said Zachary Taylor, Saint Peter's University Hospital coordinator for community health improvement.

In the New Brunswick, N.J., area, hospitals and libraries are teaming up to improve health care access and leverage the library's traditional function as a trusted community institution and gathering place.

Saint Peter's University Hospital community health services has conducted seven of 12 scheduled health screening events at seven different libraries since last summer, sometimes setting up its 36-foot mobile health unit. "Health care systems and other community health organizations are always looking to meet people where they are," Taylor said.

Marge Drozd, director of community health services for Saint Peter's University Hospital, said 122 people have been screened at the library events to check their hearing, sun damage, osteoporosis, cholesterol levels, blood pressure or blood sugar levels. She said there have been 31 referrals (or 26 percent of those screened) to doctors or free clinics for follow-up on abnormal health findings.

Kathleen Iannuzzo, a Saint Peter's nurse who has staffed several library screenings, said many people at library and at other community screenings have not been seen by a doctor for years. Nurses follow up by phone call and letter to help ensure those with an abnormal finding receive further care.

Iannuzzo said library patrons are receptive to the health screenings and to additional information about their health. Usually library patrons are interested in learning, Iannuzzo noted, so they are "like sponges" when provided with answers to their health-related questions by a nurse or a consumer health librarian.

Bonnie Sterling Goldstein, the director of a small public library in Milltown, N.J., learned she had high blood pressure during a Saint Peter's health screening event at the East Brunswick Public Library. She followed up with her doctor and started on a medication. "It was a wake-up call," she said.

Since then, Goldstein, who is not a consumer health specialist, has referred questions from a few of her Milltown patrons to the East Brunswick Public Library where some librarians are trained in consumer health research by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine. "Everyone thinks they can just Google the answer," she said, but her patrons have found the vetted research a huge help when trying to better understand their health questions.




Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.