Information Resources

Medical Librarians: Helping Patients Engage With Information

The recent emphasis on patient-centered care places a demand for quality information on both sides of the medical relationship. Physicians and nurses are tasked with communicating effectively in ever-smaller time segments. Patients must describe their symptoms and treatment progress and ask any pertinent questions in the same shrinking time frame. Additionally, some patients must work through the barriers of culture, language and health literacy. In all of these circumstances, medical librarians can help.

Most patients are not well equipped to deal with medical terminology, knowledge of body systems, drug information and potential side effects. Information sheets are often distributed to the patient at time of discharge and are of some help for immediate knowledge needs. Curious patients and family members, however, often find these inadequate, especially if the treatment is on-going or does not seem to work. That means the patient may be left with a choice to contact their doctor or to look for answers to their questions on their own.

Fifty-five percent of adult internet users have looked online during the past 12 months for information about a specific disease or medical problem.

Recent Pew Research Center studies have shown that 55% of adult internet users have looked online during the past 12 months for information about a specific disease or medical problem. There is an overabundance of easily accessible information available, but no guarantee of reliability, accuracy, applicability or timeliness.

A Specialized Resource for Patients and Clinicians

The librarian is an often-overlooked solution to this problem. Medical librarians are uniquely positioned to work with patients, family members and medical personnel to address their questions and information needs. There are over 2,000 medical librarians across the country, located in hospitals and medical centers. Also, public libraries in rural and urban communities throughout the nation employ librarians trained in finding quality health information.

Librarians work with consumer health information in many ways to help patients and their families. The first and most obvious is to meet with the patient in person, talk about the diagnosis and treatment, and then decide what kind of information is needed. At this point, the information found and provided will be evaluated for quality, appropriateness and timeliness. To make sure the information is useful, the librarian will determine the patient’s ability to understand the language and concepts presented and evaluate the patient’s computer literacy to make sure they can use both the technology and internet successfully.

Medical librarians or public librarians can both perform this service. The librarian will make sure that the patient’s information is kept confidential, and will neither diagnose nor prescribe any treatment. All questions regarding the illness and treatment will be referred to the treating physician, usually at no charge to the patient.

An example of that type of offering is Expert HealthSearch. Associated with the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, this service offers research help from a medical librarian to patients who have not yet been successfully diagnosed or whose treatment is not working. If you are interested in the service, complete the questionnaire on the website and a librarian will contact you. This service is currently being offered at no cost to the patient.

One of the benefits of working with a librarian in person is the opportunity for on-the-spot, quick education to make further information searching and use successful. From the internet to the tabloids at the local market, to your neighbor or relative, there are many sources and a huge amount of health information available. Evaluating the quality of any of this is necessary to make sure the suggested diagnoses and treatments are accurate, appropriate and timely. Much as teaching a man to fish will help him to feed himself, a good librarian will discuss the criteria for evaluating information with the patient—not just select materials—empowering the patient to continue to seek useful and accurate information.

For the patient, the collection of books, magazines/journals, etc. in the library is the other important reason to find a librarian. Though much of the current health literature is available on the internet, there are still valuable materials in print.

Physicians and nurses who are interested in their patients having access to good information should consider working with their hospital librarian. They often serve on hospital committees for patient education, health literacy and other topics and are experts in developing evidence-based educational resources.


Barbara B. Jones Barb Jones is a health sciences librarian with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, MidContinental Region. She is the Missouri coordinator and represents the six-state MidContinental Region as library advocacy project coordinator. Her work experience includes clinical librarianship in both hospital and clinic settings as well as program development, teaching and training in academic settings. She is particularly interested in developing new roles for librarians including patient safety and knowledge management, library assessment and evaluation, and advocacy issues. Barb has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Arizona. She is based at and serves on the library staff at the J. Otto Lottes Health Science Library at the University of Missouri.

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