Researchers look at how libraries can increase health literacy

San José State University professors are trying to improve access to health information for members of our community by researching how public librarians may be able to help in filling the gaps. Their study, “Preparing public librarians for consumer health information services,” has been completed.

Dr. Lili Luo, of the School of Library Information Sciences, and Dr. Van Ta Park, of Health Science and Recreation, set out to answer four main questions with a research grant from the College of Applied Sciences and Arts:

  1. What are the types of health information needs fulfilled by reference services at public libraries?
  2. What are the challenges encountered by public librarians when assisting patrons with health information needs?
  3. What are public librarians’ desired content and delivery options of training on providing consumer health information service?
  4. To elicit thoughts and suggestions from health care professionals about areas of health literacy needs, and ways public librarians can help to improve the public’s health literacy.

According to the Institute of Medicine, nearly half of all American adults, or 90 million people, have difficulty understanding and using health information. The findings from Luo and Park’s research will help in increasing health literacy, or “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

The pair focused on public libraries because they believed them to be a no-cost, convenient way to share health information resources. In their research, they surveyed public librarians to see what inquiries they get from library visitors and how comfortable librarians are with directing people to health information.

Through their study they found people most often seek “factual information about the human body, a medical/health condition, a disease, or a medical concept, questions about fitness/diet/nutrition, and questions about the treatment options/healing process of a medical/health condition or a disease, including complementary and alternative therapies,” according to a summary of the research. But the researchers also found the biggest challenges to librarians in connecting visitors to health-related information was difficulty in interpreting their questions and in persuading patrons to use more up-to-date materials such as those available online versus print materials. They also found some librarians were not comfortable, confident or competent in providing reference service to health information seekers due to concerns such as an inadequate understanding of health literacy, provision of misinformation and possible intrusion on patron privacy.

In addition to the information about the questions they have received and the challenges in getting information to clients, the researchers asked librarians how they would want to receive training to improve their ability to share health information. They found the overwhelming response was to use self-paced, online tutorials.

For the last part of their research, they shared some examples of answers librarians had given to health information inquiries with healthcare professions to get their input on the responses. They found health care professionals thought public libraries should be used as part of the solution in addressing health literacy needs. Some health care professionals noted that librarians should be cautious in their responses so as not to provide medical advice or personal comments. They recommended reputable websites and training as a resource for librarians to improve their own and community member’s health literacy.

To read more on the findings of the study, view the attached PDF: Preparing public librarians for consumer health information service

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