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Five Questions: Got health questions? Ask your Philly librarian

But health? Shouldn't that information come from your physician?

Sure — up to a point. New research shows that libraries have a unique position when it comes to addressing public health needs, especially in communities that are considered medically underserved.

A study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia, published in a recent issue of Health Affairs, found that the library already routinely helps its patrons find housing, food, employment, and information about health care – all topics integral to their health.

The researchers noted that Philadelphia is the poorest of the nation's 10 largest cities, and that its rates of hypertension, obesity, and diabetes are among the highest in big cities.

Based on the study's findings, the researchers developed a "Healthy Library Initiative" in which Penn staff collaborated with librarians to bring more public health programs to local libraries.  They also started to train library staff as "community health specialists." We recently spoke to one of them, Will Torrence, who works in the South Philadelphia branch, at 1700 S. Broad St.

Tell us what you do.
A couple of years ago, the Free Library did research to find out what questions were being asked in libraries — an internal evaluation of what we were offering —  and discovered a third of the questions being asked in our libraries were health-related.

Our own South Philadelphia branch was being built right under a new health center and a new primary care office of Children's Hospital.  So my position is partly just to focus on those health questions and focus on getting health-specific programming into the library.

For instance, we've had Medicare sign-up  help. We're having a community baby show in December that's being put on by Bethanna [a child welfare nonprofit].  It's basically a health fair targeting new parents and women who are expecting. Specifically, that's targeting mostly new immigrant women, since we do have a lot of new immigrants in this part of the city. There will be more bilingual and multilingual resources available.

I'm also just a standard branch librarian – one of two adult librarians at the South Philly branch. People can ask me anything. It doesn't have to be a health question.

What kind of needs do you see?
We see all kinds of requests. One of the things the researchers found is that we can be a safety net for the vulnerable. If people are experiencing homelessness, the library is a great place for resources. We have a computer lab designated almost exclusively for job assistance.  We're also a place where older people can come in if they just need to get some community contact. We're accessible.

People can ask us about things they have talked to their doctors about. We have information about heart conditions. People ask about diabetes.  People get a diagnosis from the doctor a few floors above, and then they'll come ask us about it.  They'll ask us if we have any more reading material on what the doctor was talking about.

Doctors do give people information. But sometimes people just want to read more. They want to reaffirm that information. Also, especially for people with young children, a lot of things they're asking for are things their pediatrician is talking about. One of the big things we get asked about is nutrition for babies and for toddlers. They want to know how quickly their kids should be doing things.

Can you describe any experience in particular where you felt you really helped the person?
There are a lot of little ones, I feel. I helped one gentleman find a new doctor through Medicare. A lot of our patrons aren't comfortable with computers, so it was a case of guiding him through the website.  A lot of it is standard library practice. But it is contributing to the social health of the patron.

What was important about the recent study's conclusions?
The most important thing, certainly, from the library's perspective, is that it reaffirms the value of the library for communities. All those things we normally do — story time that contributes to childhood literacy, adult literacy that contributes to overall well-being, job fairs — it really affirms the value we have, even if it's just a warm place in the winter and a cool place in the summer.

The researchers also put together classes where they would evaluate certain segments of our base — the mentally ill, new Americans, families, the homeless. They gave us very concrete information about who to call to help people find something.  Say you're a veteran who needs housing, they gave us all sorts of numbers. That was one of the most pragmatic outcomes of the study.

With 54 branches, ideally just about everyone should be able to walk to a library in Philadelphia. We take all comers. Everyone is welcome. We answer all questions to the best of our abilities.

Right now, since we're only taking questions in person, that probably limits the questions we will get. We're out in the open. There's no way to guarantee other people can't hear what they're asking us. We're working on ways to combat that.  Long term, we might like to have health-specific  email reference or phone reference, just like the library has for general topics.

What advice can you offer for how people can go about doing health research for themselves and their families?
Two sites I would recommend in particular are the Mayo Clinic and MedlinePlus.

Mayo is good because they have a lot of citations on their sources. They have a well-established medical reputation as a hospital and a research institution. Medline Plus is part of the National Institutes of Health. It is also very reliable and much less likely to be biased.

With anything, the most important thing is that you want to check multiple sites and see that there's consistency with what you're reading.

Here are more things we recommend you look for: Pay attention to who's making the sites. Is it a well-respected institution or the government, or is it just some person's blog you found on a Google search? Pay attention to how many advertisements are on the page and what they're for.  If an article is mentioning a specific brand name, you want to see if the pharmaceutical company that made the drug is sponsoring the site.  A reliable site should always have some way to contact them.  You want to see that there are a lot of citations. You want to make sure that it's written in a very simple, clear, and concise way. If there's a lot of  jargon, that's a red flag.  Also, check the date that it was produced. You want to make sure that it's current information.

And, one of the most important ones: You definitely want to be wary of any site that's asking for any personal information. It's not a very good sign. They're possibly doing it for commercial reasons.

One final thing: When in doubt, ask your doctor. We want to help people as much as we can, but we can't diagnose people. We are neither licensed nor qualified to administer medicine or diagnose treatment.