Patient Activation: Public Libraries and Health Literacy

By Malachowski, Margot | Computers in Libraries, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Patient Activation: Public Libraries and Health Literacy


Malachowski, Margot, Computers in Libraries


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The first time I heard the term "patient activation," I smiled. It was a new term for the perennial problem. We know what we need to do for our health: exercise, eat right, and get enough rest. How do we get motivated to actually do these things? If we have a chronic health condition, how do we stay on track with caring for ourselves? This is what patient activation is. As we all know, it isn't as simple as installing a new battery. It isn't as simple as coming up with a new term.

I am a medical librarian working for Baystate Health in Springfield, Mass. Baystate Health is a teaching hospital serving western Massachusetts. We are affiliated with Tufts University School of Medicine and several schools of nursing, pharmacy, and allied health. My job is to conduct outreach to patients and families. I recommend reliable websites for health information, perform searches for personal health problems, and teach hands-on sessions on how to find reliable information on the internet. I work with patients who are activated. From my vantage point, public libraries are well-placed to be part of nationwide health initiatives to expand patient activation.

Healthy People 2020 @ Your Library Soon!

Healthy People 2020 (www.healthypeople.gov) is an initiative from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) to improve public health. There are more than 40 topic areas that HHS wants addressed. One topic area is Health Communication and Health IT. We hear a lot of buzz about the electronic medical record, but this topic area must begin with a call to improve communication between healthcare providers and patients. This means conversations and personalized handouts. This is closely followed by a call to increase individuals' access to the internet. By 2020, the nation hopes to increase access to the internet and access to broadband by 10%. Another goal is to increase the proportion of easily accessible, quality health-related websites by 10%.

Public libraries play a role in maintaining internet access and, in some towns, may be the only public access to broadband. For example, in 2010, there were 47 Massachusetts towns that had little or no internet connectivity to general households. Federal stimulus funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of2009 (ARRA) are assisting these towns through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), the Broadband Improvement Program (BIP), and the State Broadband Initiative program (SBI).

Healthy People 2020 has identified the lack of broadband access as a risk for health disparities. Patient activation is about people taking an active interest in their health, and the internet is where they can find the most current health information. HHS draws a correlation between internet-based information seeking and the status of people experiencing disease. Comparing statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS finds inverse relationships between internet use and the incidences of asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions. If we are to make strides toward health literacy, we need to make the argument that libraries should be open for internet access, not only for the job seekers but also for the health seekers.

Public librarians are playing a larger role in teaching people about easily accessible, quality health-related websites. While we might not be activating the patients (we hope that starts happening with improved communication between patients and healthcare providers), we are assisting those who are searching for additional information. …

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