How Libraries Can Save Lives
Posted by Jennifer Vecchiarelli on December 20, 2017 in categoryFacts & ResearchcategoryNews

Many people visit their local library to borrow books, periodicals, movies, and music. But not everyone who visits a library is on a mission to find a good book to fill the time.

Libraries serve as vital community hubs and play significant roles in community-based efforts such as health literacy – a sizable proportion of Americans visit the library for health guidance. Unfortunately, many librarians and administrators are unfamiliar with the health resources available to serve patrons.

The Library’s Role in Health Literacy

According to a 2010 study, 37 percent of library users, including 57 percent of seniors living in poverty, used public library computers to seek health information. 

In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of Americans ages 16 and older on the role libraries play in their lives and in their communities. Nearly 75 percent of the respondents said that libraries are helpful when it comes to seeking information on healthcare. Libraries helped “a lot” for learning about healthcare information for 43 percent of those ages 65 and older and 44 percent of those whose annual household income is $30,000 or below. 

Why Health Literacy Matters

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals are able to obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Low health literacy is a serious and dangerous nationwide issue that has unfortunately claimed the lives of many.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of adults have proficient health literacy – that means nearly nine out of ten adult lack the skills necessary to maintain their health, and prevent diseases and infections. Many individuals who lack health literacy skills cannot read or understand prescription labels and their providers’ instructions and health plans. They lack numeracy skills to choose health and prescription coverage, and have little to no knowledge on various basic health topics. Additionally, culture and language barriers can hurt an individual’s ability to understand health plans and instructions.

The health care industry estimates that an excess of $230 billion a year in health care costs is linked to low adult literacy. Low literacy is associated higher healthcare costs due to the role it plays in increasing hospitalization rates, declining utilization of preventative services, and overall poor healthcare outcomes. 

A large number of individuals are at risk of low health literacy, including older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, people with less than a high school degree or equivalency, people with low income levels, non-native speakers of English, and people with compromised health status. Education, language, culture, access to resources, and age are all factors that affect a person's health literacy skills.

What are libraries doing to help?

A 2013 survey showed that a third of the public librarians who responded were unfamiliar with resources that could help patrons with health-related queries.

There is a significant gap between the staggering number of low health literate library patrons, and the lack of training and resource familiarity of libraries. The Public Library Association (PLA) is partnering with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) to close this gap and train librarians nationwide to better serve patrons seeking medical guidance. 

The PLA-NNLM partnership will address the issue in a number of ways, including with training podcasts, webinars, conference sessions, and a dedicated resources and training website for librarians. The website will inform and provide information for librarians on what NNLM information is accessible, offer streamlined versions of that information for library patrons, and provide recommendations for how libraries can promote their role as a “health info desk.”

NNLM realizes that even though there are available resources available for librarians, the high-level material is too complex for the basic healthcare consumer information sought by patrons. The partnership will address this roadblock and a wide range of other needs among librarians. Librarians who are seeking a credential in Consumer Health Information Specialization managed by the Medical Library Association can use training on the materials. The materials can also be accessed “a la carte” based on local needs.

ProLiteracy and the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services have partnered to further efforts outlined in the National Library Literacy Action Agenda, a resource to help libraries implement processes for institutionalizing adult literacy efforts. Through our partnership, we will continue to help libraries across the country implement, develop, and advocate for accessible and innovative adult literacy resources and services, including health literacy.

Improving Health Literacy

By acknowledging library-focused initiatives such as the PLA-NNLM partnership to increase and improve training on health literacy materials for librarians, and by furthering efforts like those of the ALA and ProLiteracy partnership, we can collectively improve the health literacy of Americans nationwide. 
With all of our efforts to increase the capacity of public library staff, we envision a brighter future with decreased poor health outcomes and reduced spending. 


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