Got a Health Question? Ask the Librarian- Just for the Health of It!

Good health starts upstream in the community and what better place than the East Brunswick Public Library leading the way on a national scale!   The library was awarded a two-year grant by the New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to mobilize its proprietary Just for the Health of It program to improve community health through health literacy.   The project is called Mobilizing Just for the Health of It:  Health Information Library on Wheels (HILOW).  NJHI recognized the important role that health literacy plays in the making of healthy communities and saw potential to broaden the HILOW program throughout Middlesex County with public librarians at the heart of change.

The HILOW program uses the library’s team of consumer health librarians who receive special ongoing training and professional certification through the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM).  Librarians participate in monthly webinars given by NNLM in all areas of consumer health spanning the entire life cycle from birth through seniors.  Each webinar builds upon their research knowledge of high quality medical websites and NIH resources for evidence-based health information.   These webinars cover the health needs of adults, kids & teens, parents, new immigrants, LGBTQ community, drugs, mental health, nutrition, pet health, plus lifelong wellness for all.   Librarians take the information that they glean from their NNLM training and venture weekly out into places in Middlesex County where people of all ages, languages and cultures gather.  While onsite, they create welcoming and festive tables with articles that showcase a broad range of health topics in an engaging and non-intimidating way.   Our librarians encourage people to stop by, browse, chat, pick up some nifty giveaways like a back scratcher, and become empowered patients!  Librarians are specially trained to be sensitive to the needs of the culturally and linguistically diverse communities they visit.  While onsite, they provide appropriate health resources that break down barriers to equitable access to health information.  These barriers are language, literacy level, physical access, and physical and visual disabilities.  The HILOW mobile program focuses specifically on the poor, elderly, and new immigrants; however, it recognizes that anyone is at risk for poor health literacy.  Today over 90 million people in the United States lack basic literacy skills to comprehend medical information beyond an eighth grade reading level.  Anyone lacking basic health understanding is at risk for poorer health outcomes, longer recoveries and hospitalizations, more frequent hospital re-admittances, poorer quality of life while living with a chronic condition, and higher rates of mortality.  Our librarians address health questions while visiting community fairs, senior centers, shopping malls, schools, support groups, conferences, movie showings, and book fairs.  All information is tailored to each person and is packaged in their native language, at their appropriate reading level, and oftentimes text is enlarged to aid those with visual disabilities.   To date, librarians have interacted with a total of 1337 people who visited our table since December 2018.  Librarians have answered health questions on the spot or conducted more intensive research at the library that is sent to the requestor by email or U.S. mail.  Librarians have answered questions such as: What foods can I eat with Type 2 Diabetes? Why is Vitamin D important?  Is exercise necessary when living with Parkinson’s?  What is Crohn’s disease?  Can you send me some recipes for low sodium cooking?  Where can I find a doctor who speaks Hindi?    A sampling of places visited by the HILOW team of librarians include the Franklin Township Senior Center; East Brunswick Square Mall; Annual Living Well with Parkinson’s Disease Conference; Spotswood Public Library; Sayreville Public Library; and even a visit to Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, NJ to discuss health literacy with 60 medical students as part of their curriculum entitled The Ecology of Patient-Centered Medicine.  Many people that librarians interact with in their travels express their frustration with the medical system.  Others are hesitant to question a doctor or be honest about their lack of understanding in a short, fifteen minute doctor’s visit.   Many have a critical need for health information about their condition or medication but have cultural, language, literacy, or disability barriers that hinders understanding in a standard “one size fits all” doctor’s appointment.

The HILOW is well on its way to making a difference in improving the health of Middlesex County residents wherever we travel.   Today our team of consumer health librarians are busy frontline ambassadors of public health travelling throughout the county and breaking the mold of traditional librarians.  We’re hoping to show libraries nationwide that librarians can be formidable players in public health and to follow in our footsteps by using their skills to enrich community knowledge of health issues.   In the meantime, we’re having fun, making people smile as they become informed and empowered health consumers.   Our end game is simple.  We make health information less intimidating, more inclusive, and most importantly, equitable so that everyone has an equal chance to live their best life possible.