Top Ten Competencies in Medical Reference

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Many reference-based competencies in medical libraries circ 2014 are "print-based" ...but they can (and should) be transferable to the digital context
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 24 May 2017


See also Core Titles in Medical Reference | Expert searching | Health librarian competencies (draft) | Reference services | Systematic review searching | Teaching library users

The Top Ten Competencies in Medical Reference is a list of competencies for health librarians that combines and acknowledges important knowledge, skills and abilities for success in our field. Although several competencies are rooted in library traditions that date back to the mid-twentieth century and earlier, the entry aims to place traditional competencies in a more current context for conversation. For example, with the rise of search engines, open access to information and Twitter, reference skills appear to be exercised less and less often today than in any other time in history. Information is ubiquitous. In fact, many of the questions we seek answers to within our ready reference collections are now satisfactorily found by Google and other open-access, web-based sources. That said, there is a problem with information glut. How many times have health librarians heard lately that users feel overwhelmed by the information they find? Or, that they can't find what they need? Especially authoritative, evidence-based information? During periods of information overload, health librarians must therefore revisit the basic competencies of providing medical reference services either on their own or in collaboration with their peers. It is in our evidence-based analogue and digital collections, that answers to the most difficult reference questions can be found. In the event that answers are more easily found on the web, health librarians are therefore called upon to use their critical appraisal skills and check two or more sources to verify possible answers.

Medical reference roles & context(s)

Medical librarians provide a range of reference and information services in and outside the library, on the phone, virtually (using chat, instant messaging, social media) and over e-mail. In addition, instructional services "one-on-one", in small or large workshops are part and parcel of delivering competent reference services in medical libraries in the 21st century. By using digital tools, users can communicate with their librarian more readily than ever, without ever having to set foot in a library. However, health librarians must consider both their print-based competencies and their newer digital roles in assisting health user groups. End-users in medicine may experience a range of technical and authentication issues when accessing licensed content, and may not fully understand the differences between "free vs. fee" content. Other technical barriers and their solutions such as proxy servers, firewall workarounds and VPNs are important in the delivery of digital library services as these tools prepare the way for users who need to move across online barriers. Sometimes the simple act of explaining a tool to a faculty member or medical researcher is all that may stand in the way of obtaining information and making good clinical decisions. In some cases, access to the best medical evidence in hospitals is intermittent when using various workarounds. Hospital firewalls can put up formidable barriers, and IT departments may feel it is necessary to block websites and resources if they are deemed to be a compromise to hospital networks. This is where having an onsite library with a qualified and skilled health librarian is essential.

The role of expert search skills

The health librarian's role in expert searching in the current era of evidence-based practice cannot be overstated. This is particularly true where scoping reviews, rapid reviews and systematic reviews involve the health information professional. In 2003, these skills were anticipated by the MLA - Medical Library Association (U.S.) when it published The role of expert searching in health sciences libraries. In that document, the main roles assumed by health librarians are defined particularly "in expert retrieval and evaluation of information in the support of knowledge and evidence-based clinical, scientific, and administrative decision making". Health librarians provide reference services using various information sources and tools but also demonstrate and teach end-users - such as physicians, nurses, pharmacists, students etc. – how to search for information effectively. Before taking on any teaching or expert search roles, however, health and medical librarians must first develop basic competencies in information retrieval.

Explore ten (10) different competencies in medical reference ...........

Competency #I

  • Help users locate words, terms, phrases and syndromes. Decode abbreviations. Provide abbreviations/ acronyms for journals. Locate biographical information in directories

Competency #II

  • Help users verify, complete and/or correct citations. Locate supplementary materials

Competency #III

  • Demonstrate and teach users how to access major biomedical databases (print & online) using multiple interfaces, vocabularies and gateways. Use document delivery and interlibrary loan services

Competency #IV

  • Help users locate authoritative information on diagnosis & therapy for diseases, disorders & treatments

Competency #V

  • Help users locate drug information by brand, trademark or generic name. Locate therapeutics information, interactions, contraindications, synonyms & adverse effects. Overdosing/poison control & drug question referral

Competency #VI

  • Help locate reference values (or ranges) used in interpreting diagnostic procedures & laboratory tests

Competency #VII

  • Help users identify location of psychological tests/measurements. Mental Measurements Yearbook, Tests

Competency #VIII

  • Teach users how to navigate search engines, websites, open access repositories, blogs, podcasts, web 2.0 media

Competency #IX

  • Help users find and interpret local, provincial and national data & statistics in health and other major sources

Competency #X

  • Locate periodic table, chemical names, structures, formulas, elements, common properties (molecular weight or melting point). Conversion tables. Health & safety. Use indexes and appendices


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