Libraries make health literacy accessible for all

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by Lindsey Simon

More than 90 million U.S. adults have low health literacy. Health literacy, which measures someone’s ability to access necessary health services and understand health information, is crucial for maintaining a high quality of life.

Public, school, academic and special libraries can play a key role in making health literacy attainable for all—which is why the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) are collaborating to raise awareness for Health Literacy Month this October.

Library advocates can join the ALA and NNLM in highlighting how libraries promote health literacy by signing up for their free health literacy toolkit, which provides graphics, messaging ideas and striking data about health literacy and libraries. The toolkit is part of ALA’s Libraries Transform public awareness campaign, a nationwide movement spreading the word about how libraries and library professionals transform lives.

Individuals with low health literacy skills often have higher health care costs and an increased risk of developing preventable disease. For those struggling to make sense of health information, the library is a key resource, providing free access to quality health information and databases that can improve one's quality of life.

“NNLM recognizes that people trust their libraries and want to equip library staff with the knowledge to help their users navigate locating reliable health information,” said Lydia Collins, Consumer Health Coordinator at NNLM. “This is critical so that health consumers can make educated decisions, in collaboration with their health care providers, for themselves and their loved ones.”

While library professionals can’t answer specific questions about medical conditions or treatment options, they can guide their community members to trusted health information to help them make educated decisions. Librarians can help locate quality information and resources around a variety of health topics, including nutrition, aging and rare diseases. And when health information can be difficult to understand, library staff can help people make sense of confusing information—from evaluating the accuracy of health news to providing multilingual health information for immigrant and refugee populations. Beyond that, many libraries partner with community health agencies and offer health-focused events and programs for the whole family, including exercise and cooking classes.

While Health Literacy Month is observed in October, health literacy saves lives and improves health outcome year-round: you can always head to your local library for assistance getting health information for you and your loved ones.