Addressing Health Disparities and Environmental Justice: The National Library of Medicine's Environmental Health Information Outreach Program

By Dutcher, Gale A.; Spann, Melvin et al. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Addressing Health Disparities and Environmental Justice: The National Library of Medicine's Environmental Health Information Outreach Program


Dutcher, Gale A., Spann, Melvin, Gaines, Cynthia, Journal of the Medical Library Association


Purpose: Disparities in health between minority and majority populations have become a topic of high interest in the health care and information communities. This paper describes the National Library of Medicine's (NLM's) oldest outreach program to a minority population, a project that has been going on for over fifteen years.

Setting/Participants/Resources: The overview is based on internal documentation and reports, interviews, personal communications, and project reports.

Brief Description: This is a historical overview of the Environmental Health Information Outreach Program, from its beginnings in 1991 as the Toxicology Information Outreach Project. The initial collaboration began with nine historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that had graduate programs in biomedicine. The current program includes representation from HBCUs, institutions serving Hispanic students, and tribal colleges. In addition to working with these institutions to promote the use of and access to electronic health information and related technology, this program brings attention to scientific research related to health issues that disproportionately affect minorities.

Results/Outcome: The program expanded due to its perceived success by the initial participants and NLM's management. Not only have faculty, staff, and students at the participating institutions received training in using NLM's toxicology, environmental health, and other electronic resources, but the participants ascribe other successes to their collaboration with NLM.

INTRODUCTION

Diversity, health disparities, and environmental justice are all important aspects of public health. While the National Library of Medicine's (NLM's) current outreach portfolio includes working with diverse communities and their institutions, NLM has not always focused its attention on issues of diversity. For many years, NLM primarily developed information resources to serve health professionals and biomedical researchers. In addition to the MEDLINE database, NLM began a program that included the development of factual, scientific, and technical databases in toxicology and chemical information in 1967 [1]. NLM worked with medical libraries to make this information available to professional audiences. Starting in 1989 with the publication of its first long-range plan focused on outreach, NLM and its National Network of Libraries of Medicine started training health professionals to use the library's online databases [2, 3]. While these efforts met with substantial success in mainstream medical schools and larger hospital centers, many institutions, particularly those that were largely minority, were struggling to keep up with access to online databases and the required technology. To help broaden access, NLM undertook a one-year pilot project to strengthen the capacity of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to use NLM's toxicological and chemical databases. This pilot project was intended to have an impact not only on the institutions themselves, but also on their surrounding communities.

BACKGROUND AND HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

Minority-serving educational institutions

The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as "any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans" [4]. HBCUs enroll 14% of all African Americans in higher education, although they constitute only 3% of America's 4,000 plus institutions of higher education [5]. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed executive order 12232, which established a federal program "to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education" [6]. Subsequently in 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued executive order 12320 establishing the White House Initiative on HBCUs [7]. …

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