Are you interested in contributing to HLWIKI International? contact
To browse other articles on a range of HSL topics, see the A-Z index.
See also Answering health and medical reference questions | Biomedical research questions | Medical oddities
Frequently-asked types of questions
Why provision of health information is important
- patrons (i.e. consumers, patients and family members) need to make decisions about their healthcare; information is critical
- patrons may be afraid to ask their doctor (i.e. or may not want to bother a busy person, etc.)
- access to hospital libraries may be limited (i.e. or no library professional is available there)
- Googling is a popular way to find health information but some information may be missed, overlooked or need interpretation
- Public librarians are needed to filter information on the Internet
Challenges in finding medical information:
- medical vocabulary
- knowing how much information to provide
- not being familiar with the topic or resources
- not knowing “health literacy” levels of patrons
- information overload due to search engines
- patrons who want both information and interpretation/advice
Reference interviews in health
- Be empathetic
- Be an active listener
- Use open-ended questions
- Respect privacy/confidentiality
- Be prepared for emotions
- Be aware of body language
- Do not be afraid to refer the patron back to his or her health care provider
- provide a safe, private place for your reference interviews
- use terms like “I will try to help y ou” or “This must be difficult”
- provide a range of materials
- explain why a resource is best suited to answer their question
- know the limits of your collection
Books that answer these questions
- Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine Detroit. Excellent source of consumer information. Gale publishes a number of health related encyclopedias, including topics such as alternative medicine, cancer, genetics, mental illness, and surgery.
- Gray's Anatomy, 20th Edition, 1918. http://www.bartleby.com/107/. Select Gray's Anatomy from the Reference menu or use the link at the right of the page. Select an anatomical description and illustration from the table of contents or search by anatomical term.
- Human Anatomy On-Line. http://www.innerbody.com/. A well illustrated and informative introduction to human anatomy.
- Merck Manual of Medical Information, Home Edition. 2004. Rahway, NJ: Merck. Merck Manual in easy-to-understand language.
- Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy http://www.merck.com/mrkshared/mmanual/sections.jsp. The online version of the popular medical reference work.
- PDR Family Guide: Encyclopedia of Medical Care http://www.healthsquare.com/medcare2.htm. Health Square is the host for three PDR publications. The site includes the causes, symptoms, and care for diseases and health problems. Gives additional information for each condition: "What you should do …," "Call your doctor if …," and "If you’re headed for the hospital …" (what to expect and what to do after leaving the hospital).
- Dorland Illustrated Medical Dictionary, Philadelphia: Saunders. Considered to be the "dean" of medical dictionaries. Unabridged, comprehensive and authoritative, it is updated every few years.
- Merriam-Webster's Medical Desk Dictionary from MEDLINEplus http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/mplusdictionary.html. Type in your word, review the definition and select terms suggested in the list of related terms.
- Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Philadelphia: Saunders. Designed for use by nurses and allied health professionals, this is on a level accessible to the layperson. Some line drawings.
- Mosby’s Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary. Similar to Miller-Keane but has extensive color illustrations (buy one or the other). Updated every four years.
- Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. Similar to Dorland’s and essentially equal in authority (buy one or the other). Published approximately every five years.
Some places to start
- Cancer.gov http://www.cancer.gov is developed by the National Cancer Institute, and provides information about cancer, clinical trials, statistics, and more
- ClinicalTrials.gov http://clinicaltrials.gov is the National Library of Medicine's searchable database of clinical trials
- DIRLINE http://dirline.nlm.nih.gov/ is the National Library of Medicine's online directory of health organizations
- FamilyDoctor.org http://www.familydoctor.org provides health information vetted by the American Academy of Family Physicians
- Lab Tests Online www.labtestsonline.org is developed by clinical labaratory professionals to help the public understand lab tests used in diagnosis and treatment
- MedlinePlus http://medlineplus.gov is the National Library of Medicine's consumer health portal with information on 900 health topics, drugs, daily health news, and more
- NIH Senior Health http://nihseniorhealth.gov is the National Institutes of Health's web site for seniors and their caregivers
- ToxTown http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/ is the National Library of Medicine's web resource for consumers to understand environmental toxins
Libraries that provide health information
The major role of libraries is to provide access to reliable, trustworthy information. Not surprisingly, this information is called the best evidence in health. Health librarians interpret reference questions, evaluate websites and identify resources to find answers for their major users including consumers. Reference services in health can focus on retrieving article citations from databases but may turn to current awareness (ie. alerts, RSS feeds and podcasts). Health librarians that work with clinical teams seek to find the best medical evidence and assume roles as advisors and co-investigators.
Traditionally, health librarians have delivered information services by utilizing mostly print collections to meet information needs. As such, they use expert skill and techniques to access, sort, transfer, evaluate, filter, and disseminate information to users. Printed catalogs and bibliographies, the accessibility of online catalogs and multimedia databases, along with the organizing of the national interlibrary loan systems have widened the range of resources available to health libraries.
What to collect?
Despite an increasingly open and extensive corpus of available electronic information on the Web, health librarians continue to provide basic print reference services to users, tours of the library, and, increasingly, search online catalogues and demonstrate subject-specific information sources. Instruction in libraries is greatly expanded by the enormous increases in research worldwide, the virtual explosion of Web-based electronic resources, and the quantity of language formats available for media and publications. The selection and maintenance of print and electronic book and journal collections are two of the most important activities for health librarians. Some important issues that health librarians contend with are: what is my annual collections budget? what is the overall scope of the library collection? how do I balance print and digital resource needs? free versus fee-based resources; determining differing content in print versus online versions; duplication of identical sources, multiple vendors, online access and authentication, adaptability of database interfaces and, of course, limited budgets. As physical libraries change from housing print collections to the almost completely digital, health librarians must find ways to perform collection outreach and liaison activities with user groups throughout their organizations. One of the primary challenges for health librarians in the digital age is the proliferation of scientific knowledge and evidence due to advances in biomedical research. Changes in information cycles are often a result of the way physicians are trained, how they practice and carry out their research; ultimately, this has an impact on the maintenance of a knowledge-base in the different medical disciplines and consequently how health librarians build collections.
Selection aids and tools
Health librarians rely on certain selection tools in their efforts to build timely, relevant collections for their users.
These tools include but are not limited to:
- reference questions, trends in medicine, in-house systematic reviews;
- reviews in scholarly journals or newspapers;
- Scholarly publishing and communication
- approval books and slips;
- publishers' and university press announcements;
- unsolicited sample journal issues;
- recommendations from physicians, nurses, pharmacists; others;
- course reserve lists to support degree-based health and medical programs;
- standard lists, e.g., Brandon-Hill 2003 and Doody's, catalogs of professional associations;
- stock lists from major vendors;
- catalogues of government documents;
- interlibrary loan requests;
- Login Brothers newsletters
1. Needs of primary clientele; academic, clinical or research medicine?
2. Relevance of subject to user groups, and institution; Canadian content?
3. Cost-effectiveness: cost of edition? digitized backfiles, future upgrades?
4. Research, scholarly or intellectual level;
5. Reputation and authority of authors, producer; publishers, edition?
6. Confidence in producer's commitment to maintenance;
7. Currency and validity of information and updates;
8. Access and network capacity: access preferably not requiring individual passwords;
9. Uniqueness and completeness of information;
10. Added-value and advantages over other formats;
11. Technical ease and accessibility;
12. Legal issues including licensing requirement and restrictions;
14. Archival issues - availability, cost, limitations, storage, etc.
15. Availability and quality of documentation;
16. Vendor's reliability in customer support, material availability, and quality of training programs;
17. Usage and/or limit access can be monitored