Magazine article American Libraries

Caring for Consumers: Empowering the Individual

Magazine article American Libraries

Caring for Consumers: Empowering the Individual

Article excerpt


"My daughter has cancer. What treatment should she use?"

"I have to have knee surgery. Should I wait?"

"This drug makes me dizzy. Is there an alternative?"

"Does St. John's wort really work?"

The Consumer Health Information Service (CHIS) of the Preston Medical Library at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville receives an average of 100 such questions every month from the community. In response, librarians search the medical and consumer health literature and reply by mail with a packet containing the answer, a brochure on the service, and a disclaimer warning that the librarians are not medical professionals and that consumers should consult a physician to assist in interpreting the information. Although most queries arrive via the telephone, librarians also answer in-person questions and e-mail queries sent through the library's Web site.

The service is provided free of charge as part of the institution's mission to the community. CHIS began with a $5,000 grant from the Tennessee State Library and Archives to support a collaborative project between the UT Medical Center and the Knox County Public Library system. Librarians developed a brochure that describes the service, provides the disclaimer, and notes that donations are welcome. The brochures were distributed at public library branches and in physicians' offices and patient waiting areas. The service also has been advertised on local television and even on pharmacy bags from Kroger grocery stores.

Consumers may also visit the Preston Medical Library to do their own research. Some ask librarians for assistance in using the Internet or more traditional sources. Librarians caution them to look at Internet sites carefully, steering them to government, educational, organizational, and medical subject directory sites.

Who serves the public?

The degree to which a medical library responds to consumer queries varies by the institution's mission and funding source. Public medical school libraries are usually open to the public. Hospital libraries usually provide information for patients of that institution and refer others to public libraries. Larger hospitals with a community outreach program, such as UT Medical Center, will often accept and even encourage consumer queries. Some, such as St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, maintain separate special collections. CAPHIS, the Consumer and Patient Health Information Section of the Medical Library Association (MLA), offers a Web site that includes a directory ( maintained by Rosalind Dudden of the Tucker Memorial Medical Library in Denver. Consumers may search the database for information services near them.

Although librarians of all types have been answering consumer health queries for years, a stronger alliance between public libraries and consumer-oriented medical collections will provide concerned consumers with more information options. With this end in mind, NLM has selected 37 public libraries to participate in a campaign cosponsored by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Public Library Association, and MLA to increase public awareness of and access to health information via the Internet (see p. 40-42).

In this era of managed care, responsibility for the health of one's self and family members falls increasingly into the hands of the individual. At the same time, the online information explosion exposes the public to a vast number of Web sites addressing health issues from a wide range of perspectives. This combination has resulted in consumers becoming more knowledgeable and aggressive in their requests for facts. This new breed of health consumer sometimes challenges librarians.

One challenge involves the dispensing of advice. …

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