GUIDELINES FOR PROVIDING MEDICAL
INFORMATION TO CONSUMERS
The following are suggested guidelines to help reference librarians and other library staff answer consumer health and medical questions from library users. Consumer health questions are those that relate directly to a personal medical concern of the person asking for information or the person's relative or friend. Consumer/patient questions, within the context of these guidelines, do not include questions from students doing research for a school report, health professionals, or someone doing work-related research.
1. DETERMINE WHY THE PERSON NEEDS THE INFORMATION
Health reference questions differ from most general reference questions because they often deal with sensitive information. Also, when assisting someone who has a health question, it's important to make the distinction between questions related to a personal health concern and those related to a school project or work. Often someone with a personal health question requires very specific information, whereas someone writing a school report may want a broad overview of the topic.
If you feel uncomfortable about asking the person why he needs the information or the topic is of a sensitive nature, consider saying "Do you need this information for a school report or for your work?" If the answer is "No", assume the question is of a personal nature. Many people will not hesitate to relate the reason they need the information.
2. BE AWARE OF THE PERSON ASKING THE QUESTION
The typical consumer health question comes from someone who has just been diagnosed or has just learned that a family member is ill. The person may be upset and may not be clear about the information he needs.
Remember - don't assume that the person asking the question is the person to whom the information applied. Parents, other family members, or friends may be asking for the information. Also, be sure to determine the age and sex of the person in question. Often a disease may affect a child differently than an adult and treatments can vary depending upon a person's age and sex.
3. GET AS MUCH INFORMATION AS POSSIBLE
Ask open ended questions to get as much information about what the person specifically wants to know. Many people will freely discuss their medical concern, but there are times when someone may be reluctant to do so because of the nature of the question. You may want to consider saying, "It will help me find the information you need if you can tell me more about what you want to know."
Also, you can save a great deal of time by determining what the person already knows about the subject. Has she already consulted sources in your library and, if so, which ones? Was the information she found not satisfactory and, if so, why? Was it too technical? Too general? Not current enough?
Avoid putting words in the person's mouth. If she isn't sure about the correct terminology, try not to say "Is it (this), etc?" If you offer a specific phrase or term, the person may agree that what you're saying is what she wants, even when it isn't.
Try to get an idea of how much and what kind of information the person wants. If the question is about a disease, consider asking "Are you looking for a general overview or do you want something more specific?" If the response is that he wants all the information available, try to get him to be more specific. It would be impossible, for example, to provide all the available information about arthritis since there is so much published about this disease.
4. ALWAYS CHECK TERMS IN A MEDICAL DICTIONARY
Always check in a medical dictionary for unfamiliar terms before you begin to help someone with a question. If there is uncertainty about the spelling check variants of spelling but don't go too far afield. If you've done a thorough search and still can't find the term, suggest that the person get the correct terminology and spelling from his doctor.
If there is uncertainty about the spelling of a drug name, variants should not be checked as this could lead to inaccurate information. Many drugs have similar sounding names but are prescribed for very different reasons. Ask the person to get the correct spelling of the drug name from his physician or pharmacist before attempting to answer the question.
5. DO NOT PROVIDE A DIAGNOSIS
A person may ask a health question by reciting a variety of symptoms and expect you to provide a diagnosis because he isn't exactly sure what his doctor said and he's reluctant to call her for the specific diagnosis. You may know the answer because your aunt has the same condition, but don't provide a diagnosis even if the person is well-known to library staff or is a personal friend. Remember your role as a librarian. The person who persists in seeking a diagnosis can be referred to the AMA Family Medical Guideor The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. Both have sections with self-diagnosis symptom charts useful for helping a person find a possible. These charts guide the reader through different questions and recommend a course of action for specific symptoms.
6. DO NOT INTERPRET MEDICAL INFORMATION
Medical information is often very technical. If you are asked the meaning of a specific term or sentence, refrain from saying what you "think" the information means (even if you're absolutely certain). Suggest that the person consult a medical dictionary or the AMA Encyclopedia of Medicine for definitions of technical terms.
7. DO NOT GIVE MEDICAL ADVICE, OPINION, OR MAKE RECOMMENDATIONS
Many library users when asking a medical question will say "Do you think I should . . . . .. ?" or "What's the best . . . .?" It's difficult not to answer these questions, especially if you know the person. Be very clear, however, that you cannot provide an opinion, that you have no medical training, and are not a doctor. Suggest that you will be happy to search further if more information is needed. If the person is persistent about wanting advice or recommendations, suggest that she discuss this with her physician.
NEVER provide a recommendation for a specific physician even if you're convinced that your surgeon, pediatrician, etc. is the best in the world. If the person wants a recommendation, suggest that she call a local hospital. Many hospitals have physician referral services. These referral services, however, do not give information about a physician's competence - they only provide 3 or 4 names of physicians who have privileges at that particular hospital.
You may also suggest that the person consult the ABMS Compendium of Certified Medical Specialists or the AMA's Directory of Physicians in the United States. General information on physicians may be also be found on the Internet. Check the Healthnet web site under the heading “Internet Resources”, then select the category “Health care providers”. Print and Internet resources only give background information on physicians, they do not rate them. Another resource to consider is the medical society in your state. Self-help groups with the same medical concern may also be a source of information on specific physicians.
8. PROVIDE THE MOST COMPLETE INFORMATION NEEDED TO ANSWER THE PERSON'S SPECIFIC REQUEST
This is the ultimate goal of all reference work. Certain medical questions, however, can present unique problems. A person may have a question about the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of a specific disease that you know or later find out is usually fatal. What should you do? If the person has telephoned the library and you're uncomfortable about discussing the information over the phone, offer to mail the person several photocopied pages of information. . You should never, under any circumstance, withhold information since this can be considered a form of censorship. Many people who want information about a serious disease may already suspect the prognosis.
9. CONSIDER A REFERRAL TO SELF-HELP GROUPS FOR CERTAIN KINDS OF INFORMATION
a person is looking for a recommendation for a physician who treats
a specific disease or medical condition, consider referring them
to a self-help group whose members have the same medical concern.
Self-help group members often share information about specific physicians
they've found to be most helpful in treating their condition and
usually know about all the latest treatment options (conventional and alternative)
and the support services available in the community. Be clear,
however, that you are recommending a self-help group as an
information resource, lest he think you're suggesting he needs emotional
support to cope with his problem. Consult The self-help
directory: a guide to Connecticut and national groups for a listing
of these groups. If the Directory doesn't list a specific group,
call the Connecticut Self-help Network to see if there is more current
information on a group. The Network's telephone number is (203) 624-6982
(New Haven CT). A similar national directory is The Self-help sourcebook
: your guide to community and online support groups, published by the
American Self-Help Clearinghouse (Denville, NJ:Northwest Covenant Medical
Questions about these guidelines? Contact Alberta L. Richetelle, Program Director, Healthnet
For information about Healthnet go to the Healthnet homepage
Healthnet : Connecticut Consumer
Health Information Network
Lyman Maynard Stowe Library
University of Connecticut Health Center