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TL v57 n1 Consumer Health Information: Promoting Partnerships in Collaboration between Medical & Pub
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 57 Number 1



Consumer Health Information: Promoting Partnerships in Collaboration between Medical & Public Libraries

Nakia Carter
Reference Librarian

Rick Wallace
Assistant Director for Public Services

Quillen College of Medicine Library, East Tennessee State University


Collaboration is an important aspect that most librarians share and embrace. It allows for the combination of creativity, strengths, and knowledge to maximize impact. Collaboration is especially important between medical and public libraries.

Public libraries serve as the front line for consumer health information. Studies have shown that the most requested category of information at public libraries is health information. The 2004 Pew Internet and American Life Survey said 80% of Internet users searched for at least one major health topic online. By collaborating with public libraries, medical librarians expand their impact. Likewise, public librarians gain a resource in having a medical librarian to contact with difficult search questions for health information.

As a result, a project was designed by the East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine Library with two objectives: (1) the primary objective of enabling public libraries to be skilled consumer health information providers, and (2) the secondary objective of enabling public health workers and rural hospital staff to be skilled consumer health information providers. The setting chosen was three regions (Watauga, Nolichucky, and Clinch-Powell) of the state regional library system which covered 17 counties in Northeast Tennessee and two regions of the state public health department. The participants were public librarians, public health workers, hospital workers, and consumers of health information.

Grant funding was obtained from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) for $10,000. The project utilized existing structures which made it easily replicable: (1) classes were used that were already developed by NN/LM; (2) a car was used which was already leased for outreach by the library to visit health professionals in the same geographic area, and (3) the regional administrative structure of both the libraries and public health departments were used to facilitate class scheduling. To maximize efficiency, the outreach workers would take the instructor to the consumer class site and then go make outreach visits to health professionals which ensured that the library’s staff time and efforts were being used to the fullest.

One of the topics taught during the classes was the site. It is a website provided by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the American College of Physicians to provide free materials such as posters and bookmarks to promote, a consumer health web site developed by the National Library of Medicine. These promotional materials, which were ordered during class, would arrive within the same week of ordering, so promotion of MedlinePlus could begin quickly in the public libraries.

The hierarchy of NLM is as follows: national, regional, resource, primary access, and other libraries. In 1965, a network was established to extend the reach of the National Library of Medicine. This became the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM). Each of the eight NNLM regions has a regional library that coordinates activities such as ILL, grants, and outreach projects with the various libraries in its network. Benefits of being an affiliate member are a certificate of membership, the opportunity to provide input to the region’s future plans, access to ILL via DOCLINE, NLM product promotional materials, and training and educational opportunities. The responsibilities of membership include designating a library contact person, agreeing to be listed in the national registry, and providing basic information on collections and services.

The consumer health information program developed by NN/LM consisted of four classes designed by NN/LM specifically for public librarians. The structured NN/LM classes for public librarians chosen were these:  Looking in all the Wrong Places: PubMed for Public Librarians; Prescription for Success: Consumer Health Information on the Internet; From Snake Oil to Penicillin: Evaluating Consumer Health Information on the Internet; and Beyond an Apple a Day: Providing Consumer Health Information in a Public Library. The NN/LM web page classes included handouts, Powerpoints, and other resources so ETSU librarians were able to teach the classes using the same materials the regional trainers NNLM would have used. We were also fortunate enough to schedule NN/LM trainers to come and teach some of the classes.

Fourteen classes were taught to hospital workers with 165 participants. The classes were taught in 30 minute to one hour time slots with two to four hospital staff in attendance at each session. They were shown the PubMed/Loansome Doc database and MedlinePlus. Three classes were taught to 37 public health workers covering MedlinePlus, PubMed, and PhPartners, a public health website designed by NLM. Thirty-one classes were taught in public libraries with 397 participants. The 3-hour classes were held in computer labs reserved by the regional library.

The classes taught to public librarians gave them 12 hours of Medical Library Association (MLA) CE for their Consumer Health Information Specialization (CHIS). A Consumer Health Information Specialization is earned by attending four NN/LM classes designed for public librarians. The fee for the certifications was then funded by the city or county library boards or the grant. One regional library suspended training for anything but CHIS for a year. Sixty people gained their CHIS certification. One person gained a level two certification, which required 24 hours of MLA CE in Consumer Health. The Nolichucky region had almost 100% of their employees CHIS certified. The only employees who were not certified were the new hires.

The public libraries were also encouraged to join NN/LM. One hundred pecent of the Nolichucky region’s libraries joined NN/LM. Out of all three regions involved in the grant a total of 33 public libraries joined NN/LM.

Class evaluations and a follow up survey showed the importance the library workers placed on the skills they learned. The class evaluation scores were highest at 3.95 for content on a four point scale. The overall score was 3.92. The major strengths of the training were information gained and the instructors. A survey of public library staff who attended the training with an 80% response rate found 96% would recommend the classes to others and the information learned in the consumer classes helped them find quality health information. One person said her neighbor’s life was saved because of the training she had received.

After the project ended, an NNLM state planning grant studied consumer health information knowledge of public librarians. Information found in the state planning grant data discovered that counties in the counties trained in this project almost 60% of the time used MedlinePlus daily or weekly compared with librarians across the state at almost 30%. MedlinePlus is the gold standard for accessing consumer health information online.

The main weakness of the project was the failure to generate the desired level of consumer questions. This part of the project was termed HealthInfoExpress@YourLibrary. It offered a toll-free number area citizens could use to call the medical library to receive help for their health questions. Only 74 questions were received from the community, and the majority of questions were referrals from small public libraries. Bookmarks were used to promote the question answering service. The next target for consumer health information outreach is specific populations such as Hispanics, African-Americans and the elderly. Since the end of the grant, the questions received have doubled. The strengths of the project were that it got the medical library staff to the front lines of health questions, thus expanding the medical library’s impact, it could be easily replicated by others, it was a collaborative effort, and it provided quality health knowledge to consumers.

Future plans include encouraging the Tennessee State Library to add NN/LM consumer classes as classes for CE credit, teaching the NN/LM classes in every region of the public library system in Tennessee, and continuing to promote the HealthInfoExpress@YourLibrary service to the immediate community including both English and Spanish speakers.

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