Guidance for Library Assistants on Providing Health Information to Patients and the Public

This guidance has been produced to help library assistants provide information to patients and the public. There is a real need for patients and the public to have access to high quality, reliable health information. As patients are being encouraged to self-manage and be partners in their care they need access to a range of resources tailored to their literacy level.

Library professional
I'm here to help!

Your Role

  • Direct patients and the public to good quality resources, which they might either read for themselves, or have read to them, and which they can assimilate in their own time. You should not impart advice, present the facts but do not interpret them.
  • Use your skills to signpost people to high quality information. Inform the enquirer that you are not qualified to advise them about their individual case but that you can direct them to, or give them information.
  • Ensure patients and the public are aware that any information given will never replace the advice given by a trained health professional. All patients and their carers should address their concerns to a qualified healthcare professional, who can address these directly.
  • Ensure information is not supplied unsolicited; it should only be given to the person requesting the information (this may include relatives or carers), and should not be forwarded to third parties.
  • Treat any information given to you in the course of an enquiry in confidence. You should always treat the person with dignity and respect. Do not act as a friend or confidante to patients who visit your library.

Non-urgent advice: Important

It is important to be clear about your boundaries and know your own limits.

Why do people come to the hospital library?

Healthcare information

Patients are now more involved in their own care and there is also a lot of health information available on the internet and in the media. Working in an NHS Library, we need to act as signposts to the information that patients and the general public need, enabling them to become active participants in their health and wellbeing. Patients often want to be better informed, which is encouraged by health professionals because this often results in better outcomes for patients. People seeking this information may come to the library.  

A quiet space

The hospital library is often signposted and so patients and members of the public may wander in to use the library as a place to sit, read or access the public wifi independently on their own device. 

Information for staff

The resources to which you would direct healthcare staff for use with the patients are the same as those you would direct the patients to themselves. If the person wants more detailed information then it would be appropriate to ask a qualified librarian in your library to help.

What do we do at the library?

Finding information on the computer

Your role is to help the patient or member of the public to find the information they require. You could share the guide on health information online which includes trusted sites, how to assess a website's quality, and a guide to exploring the NHS website. Your trust may also have a relevant patient information leaflet that you can give them.

If you have non-networked PCs you may let them look up information for themselves. Resources are available via open access but e-resources controlled by licence are not generally accessible to the public except where local IT policy allows use of an NHS OpenAthens walk-in account. If local policy prevents non-NHS access to the network then you will need to explain that you would breach licence terms to provide an OpenAthens account or any form of remote access to e-resources. See OpenAthens information.

If patients or the public bring in their own device you could help them login to the public wifi system and find suitable, quality resources on the internet. 

Photocopying information

You may make ‘library privilege’ copies of material from stock for members of the public, or they may make their own ‘fair dealing’ copies. In both cases, the copying may only be for private study or non- commercial research, and the amount copied must be ‘fair’ (one article from a journal or 5% of/one chapter from a book is suggested). In addition, the NHS CLA Licence allows single paper copies to be made from stock for patients and carers. You do not have to charge, but may do so.

If your library allows the patient to copy the information you have found, you should assist the person by explaining the charging mechanism and show them how to use the printing/copying facilities, as you would anyone new to using these services. Your library may make a charge for providing a printing, photocopying or scanning service. If the person has no money for this charge it is at the library’s discretion whether to provide the information free of charge in such cases. Ask about your library’s policy.

Collaboration with public libraries

In your role you may decide that the public library is better equipped to provide for the person’s information needs. Your library may collaborate with the local public library to provide health information. It is likely that your public library will also stock Books On Prescription along with books on health and wellbeing. If your library does not hold the relevant information, refer the enquirer to the public library to request an inter-library loan (there is usually a small charge).

It may be preferable to advise the person to go to their public library to borrow the item from them. Make sure you help them to check your local public library catalogue first to ensure they do not have a wasted journey, you could perhaps ring the public library to reserve the item. Your library may allow members of the public to join for a fee, but this is usually more expensive than a potential one-off borrowing would be. You might also find it cheaper to locate the book on a commercial online website or in a local book shop for the person to purchase if they wished. If you allow individuals to join your library on a fee-paying basis, you might offer loans and inter-library loans as part of this provision.

How to communicate with library users

Dealing with patients or members of the public is no different from dealing with a member of staff. Answer any questions they might have re: directions (Where can I get a cup of tea? Where are the toilets? Is it OK for me to sit and read here?). If the behaviour of the person is inappropriate then you should seek assistance from other colleagues and, if necessary, escalate the level of help by calling security. You are unlikely to encounter difficulties but always raise any concerns with senior colleagues.

Some patients or their carers may be distressed. If you are uncomfortable dealing with people who are upset (they may also be angry or confused) ask them to take a seat and find a colleague who is better equipped to deal with the person and their query.

Important: Suggested disclaimer on any information provided

If you follow these guidelines you are going to provide safe information, but it is sensible to include a disclaimer and the following is suggested:

Information and advice on sources of information is given in good faith but should never be used as a substitute for seeking medical advice. We have taken care to direct you to reliable information but cannot guarantee its accuracy. You should always consult a suitably qualified doctor or healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.