Not All Hospital Libraries Are For Patients

I recently read several articles by an author that made the erroneous assumption that the “average user” for a hospital library is the public and that hospital library websites should be easily accessible to them.  The problem is  the author doesn’t realize the average user for a hospital library isn’t necessarily the public.  The average user for many hospital libraries is the hospital employee.  The doctors, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, etc. who work in the hospital are the average users.  The hospital’s Internet site is designed for the public.  Libraries are where their average users are and for many hospital libraries that isn’t the public Internet site.

For example, the library for Energizer doesn’t have a web presence on the company’s website. In fact, if I hadn’t met the librarian at Energizer, I would never have known they had a library if I browsed their website.  The reason, the average user visiting the Energizer website is not that library’s user group.  The employees are the library’s user group and they probably have an internal network for employees to access the library resources and contact information.  The same principle follows with hospital libraries.  If a hospital library’s mission is to serve the employees of that hospital then their resources should be easily accessible to the employees.  If a hospital library serves patients then it should be easily accessible to patients and the public.  The problem is, not all hospital libraries serve patients! Therefore, not all hospital libraries will have have pages on the insitution’s website, because the institution’s website is directed at patients not employees.

Many large multi institutional hospitals have patient education departments that provide patient information resources that can be accessible to the public (or as the author likes to keep saying the “average user”). These large multi institutional hospitals with patient education departments have libraries that usually serve the employees who treat the patients.  These libraries usually don’t serve the patient directly.  For example, part of my library’s mission statement is “to provide information to support patient care, research, education, and administration to all employees.”  Patients are not our user group, employees are our user group.  It doesn’t mean that a patient can’t use the hospital library, it just means that the resources aren’t geared toward them and aren’t licensed for public use.  Since they aren’t licensed for public use they might be behind the hospital’s firewall on the Intranet or they might be on the library’s Internet site in an area frequented by employees not patients.

So for one to comb through various large hospital’s websites looking for the hospital library’s page to be easily accessible to the “average user”, is a waste of time.   The average user isn’t patients!  Therefore, they don’t design their site nor place it in a spot easily accessible to patients searching the hospital website.   Their average user is the clinician who is in the electronic medical record (EMR) or Intranet site WAAAAY more than the hospital’s public Internet site.  These libraries are designing their access sites for their average users, employees. So if your premise is that this lack of Internet accessibility for the public (which you keep referring to as the average user) renders the hospital library invisible thus diminishing the importance of the hospital medical library in the eyes of hospital administrators and clinical staff, then you are dead wrong.   You are dead wrong because the average user is the employee and they don’t use the hospital Internet site like patients.   

I am not against web site or library accessibility studies.  Accessiblity studies are very important, but only if you study the right user group.  Remember the first thing we learned in library school, know thy user.

7 thoughts on “Not All Hospital Libraries Are For Patients”

  1. It’s true that most hospital libraries aren’t there to serve patients, so I don’t disagree with this rebuttal. However, by and large the general public has no idea hospital libraries even exist. Would it make a difference for patient confidence and satisfaction if, when comparing hospitals in the area, people could at least see which ones are supporting their physicians/hcps with dedicated library services and staff? Do university hospitals get a boost in the public’s esteem (deserved or not) because people assume those docs have access to all the best research literature?

  2. Hi Alison, quite frankly right or wrong I don’t think the general public even considers libraries at all in hospitals. I can’t tell you how many times I have won bar bets (and lots of free drinks) having people try and guess what I do for a living. That is even after I give them many hints and guesses. Kind of like how I would have never guessed Energizer had a library or librarian. My son told his teacher that I was a librarian and she told him I wasn’t because she goes to the public libraries and she hasn’t ever seen me. My son is 5 he knows I’m a librarian but he was so confused and he forgot to explain to his teacher that I am a librarian for doctors. I told her he was right that I am a librarian and I am a medical librarian. I think that was the first time she ever considered librarians outside of the public or school library. The vast majority of the public think of libraries as being public or academic….rarely if ever special.

    I think people scour the internet, in particular hospital sites looking for information on their medical issues. I think they first are thinking, “Oh I have X, I need to find information on it.” Then they just search for X. I don’t think they think, “Oh I have X, I should go to a library and look for information.” I think they come to the mind set of needing a library only after general online hunt and pecking proves fruitless. Yet often general hunt and pecking is good enough for them.

    That is why I think larger hospital systems with large patient education departments really work at getting the patient information out there. The Cleveland Clinic and Mayo have some of the most well known, well used, and well respected patient information on their sites. Some of this info is written by the patient ed departments and some is a gathering of appropriate resources. Essentially our patient ed departments have done the research for the patient and made the information easily available online for patients to find. Finding my hosptial library web site isn’t going to give them near the amount of disease specific information that patient ed so readily provides. Finding my hospital library web site gets them to a lots of links to resources, many of which they don’t know about. Even if they know about them, then they have to do another search to get the information. It is MUCH easier for them to do the search on the hospital’s site and get information….especially since this is how many patients first search for information.

    To say that patients aren’t our user group sounds harsh and it isn’t meant to be. Patients are the user group of the entire hosptial, BUT somebody has to support the caregivers. When you have a large department already supporting patient information needs, it frees the library up to serve the caregivers and have a more narrow mission and user group. Being all things at once isn’t necessarily a good thing at times. We are specialized because that is what works best for our institution.

    I have never ever in all my dealings with people encountered a normal person who rates a hospital or thinks higher of a hospital based on the fact that it has a library. Every normal person I encounter is quite frankly shocked that there is a hospital library…even in an institution as large and as well thought of as mine. I’ve seen librarians (we aren’t normal) rate hospitals based on libraries and I have seen some doctors do it but not normal people.

  3. JHL 2012 12 (1) 14-24, JHL 2012 12 (2) 171-180, JHL 2012 12 (4) 342-350.

    I am not trying to be mean, I just think the idea that consumers would search for the hospital library’s website at one of the Top Hospitals to find information is flawed for two reasons.
    1. (Primary reson) These hospital libraries are in such huge institutions that they already have an entire department of patient education that sole job is to provide patients with information. Therefore the hospital libraries primary mission is not patient education (because that is already being done) but employee education.
    2. (Minor reason) Patients do not go online looking for the medical library for information. A normal person (not librarian or doctor/nurse) diagnosed with cancer is going to search the Internet (sometimes the hosptial site, often Google) for their cancer and look at what pulls up.

  4. I’ve never met a “normal person” who cared if a hospital had a library, either, and I’m with you on the separate nature of patient ed and how atypical it is for an average patient to start an online search by looking for the library. But once I explain that I’m a librarian for doctors, that my job is to make sure they have access to the latest research so they can make good decisions… it’s not that much of a stretch for people to get why that’s important. They just haven’t stopped to consider it before. I think it’s worth telling the general public about the work we do for their health care professionals. If patient ed isn’t part of the library’s mission, then maybe a splashy feature story on the hospital’s website about doctors staying up to date with the help of librarians would be the ticket.

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