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Health Resolution: Getting to Know Your Community to Improve Health Information Services

by Kelli Ham on January 25, 2018

By Kelli Ham, Community Engagement Librarian, NNLM Pacific Southwest Region, UCLA Biomedical Library, Los Angeles, CA

It’s January, a time when everyone seems to be motivated to improve their health and start making healthier choices. Your library can make a healthy resolution, too! It’s always a good time for librarians to consider new programs and ways to improve health information services … but where do you start? How do you choose the right materials, and which programs will draw the most participants? To help answer these questions, it’s critical to understand your population — not only the regular library users, but also the community at large.

Observing and working with patrons on a daily basis will give clues about the demographics in your town or city, and you might see some trends in the types of questions people ask. Perhaps the community has a high percentage of seniors, a refugee or minority population, or a high incidence of a significant health issue.

But simple observation doesn’t provide a full picture. It’s easy to find basic data or detailed reports that will fill in all the missing information and help to guide your plan.

Start with basic demographics

For a quick overview of your county, try the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps site from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Start by looking at basic demographics and health issues in the community. In the section titled “Explore Health Rankings,” search for your county, view the demographics, and browse the different health indicators. The site allows users to compare counties, and see how the county ranks in comparison to others.

Explore specifics about your community’s health

After reviewing the basics, you can access detailed community health needs assessments for your city or county. Known as CHNAs, these reports provide a wealth of information about the specific community. In addition to demographics and languages, the reports always include the most pressing health issues in the community and how the organization authoring the report plans to address the issue.

By seeing the whole picture, the library can design programming targeted to the identified health needs, which helps to draw in people from the entire community. The data can be used in collection development decisions or to support grant proposals and other related activities. In addition, the reports are excellent resources for learning about local health-related organizations. Use current CHNAs to help build your local organization directory for the reference desk or to find local experts who might speak at the library for a health program.

To find a CHNA report for your city or county, try a Google search as in this example: community health needs assessment Sacramento. You will see reports from local hospitals, county agencies and other organizations. Choose one, look at the table of contents, and then browse the sections of interest to help you understand health status of your own community. In particular, find the section of the top health needs or issues and the organization’s plan to address the issues. See what ideas are sparked by what you learn!

Turning knowledge into action

Once you’ve learned more about your community’s health needs, consider what the library can do to help community members improve their health. If there is a need for multilingual language materials, check out MedlinePlus.gov from the National Library of Medicine, the health website that every library staff should know from the National Library of Medicine. The site is in English and Spanish, and some information is available in over 45 other languages. Browse innovative health programming ideas on the American Library Association’s Programming Librarian website; choose “Health and Wellness” in the Topic pull-down menu.

By taking the time to learn about the health status and needs in the community, libraries can turn information into action to improve the health and wellbeing of the entire community.

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