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How the consumer health library in VCU Medical Center serves patients, their families and the community

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The consumer health library in the Gateway Building of VCU Medical Center has a new name, but its mission — to provide patients, their family members, and members of the greater Richmond community with access to authoritative and accurate health information — remains the same.

The library, recently renamed VCU Medical Center Health and Wellness Library, was previously called the Community Health Education Center. It opened in 2002 and is a partnership between VCU Libraries, VCU Health and the VCU Medical Center Auxiliary. The library is free and open to all.

Dana Ladd, Ph.D., who oversees daily operations of the library, provides consumer health information services, teaches health information classes, and plans and coordinates health and wellness events. She recently discussed the library’s new name and how it continues to serve the community.

What is the overarching mission of the VCU Medical Center Health and Wellness Library?

The Health and Wellness Library’s mission is to foster the advancement and development of health knowledge within the community.

In what ways does having this health library in the hospital help patients and their families?

We provide patients and their family members with reliable consumer-level health information to answer their health-related questions. For example, visitors may have questions about a new diagnosis, a medical test, prevention or an upcoming surgical procedure. We can provide information in a variety of formats, reading levels and languages. The library contains a reading area, a children’s area and a video room.

The Health and Wellness Library also provides visitors with internet-accessible computers to use and with business services such as printing, scanning, faxing and photocopying. Business services are particularly useful for those who may have family members in the hospital for lengthy stays. Our business services allow people to pay bills online, complete taxes and send or receive health and insurance forms without having to leave the hospital.

Are there any examples or anecdotes you could share that demonstrate how valuable the library is as a resource?

Visitors express their gratitude for the services we provide and find the library to be a valuable resource stating that it makes a difference in their lives as they are going through a very difficult time dealing with an illness or injury. Patients and family members are so appreciative of all we do, and even for us just being here and taking the time to listen. There are many examples of patient and family gratitude.

One afternoon, a group of family members entered the library, and many of them were visibly crying and they all had a look of desperation. They needed to use the library computers to email their family and friends and update them about their father. Earlier that day, their father had been driving his motorcycle and lost control of it on an off-ramp. He sustained serious head injuries in addition to multiple other injuries. I told them about a personalized website family members can use to update friends and family about a patient’s status. They used the site because they knew their father would have a long recovery.

The next day a large group of people entered the library and I recognized some of them as the family members who had come in the evening before. They all came to my office and thanked me and let me know how much the library services meant to them. They were so thankful for the library and for having access to the computers. They gave me a card signed by the entire family. The family members returned each day until their father was released and posted updates on the site.

The Health and Wellness Library had made a huge difference for a family dealing with tragedy. I was so glad I had the opportunity to make such a difference in their lives during this difficult time.

Library with bookshelves and computers.
The VCU Medical Center Health and Wellness Library provides access to authoritative and accurate health information for patients, families and the community. (Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

I never thought of librarians as saving lives but patients and family members have often expressed how the health information we have provided them has saved their lives.

 A few years ago, a middle-aged couple entered the library. The husband had just been diagnosed with colon cancer. They were scared and motivated to find out as much about his diagnosed type of cancer as possible. We helped them find the information and provided them with printouts to take home.

Around two years later, the couple returned to the library. The wife came to my office and knocked on the door. She stated, “You and your staff helped us two years ago find information about my husband’s cancer.” I remembered them. She continued, “You are an angel. You saved his life.” She continued to talk about how the information we provided helped them navigate through dealing with cancer and helped them communicate with their doctors and make decisions. 

Your doctoral dissertation was on the information needs and information sources of patients diagnosed with rare cancers. Has having that expertise been valuable as you help patients and their families?

We see many cancer patients in the Health and Wellness Library. Many have requested information about cancers that are considered rare, and patients have expressed that they had trouble finding health information about those cancers. Having that expertise has helped me understand their information needs and provide resources to these patients. They are so grateful to receive consumer-level information about their cancer types.

My dissertation research has also shown me the importance of educating health care professionals about how they can find reliable patient-level cancer information for their patients. Because of this, I have developed a workshop I teach on Rare Disease Day (the last day of February) at the Health and Wellness Library on finding rare-disease information for patients.

What sort of programming does the VCU Medical Center Health and Wellness Library offer?

We offer health and wellness programs in the library once or twice a month. Topics have included diabetes, healthy eating, dealing with stress, exercise at work, high blood pressure, caregiving and many others. Our health and wellness programs are usually conducted at noon.

All of our programs are free and open to anyone.

What led to the name change?

Our previous name, Community Health Education Center, was confusing to some staff, patients, students and community members. People were uncertain of what we are or what we do. Through focus groups, we found out that hospital staff and physicians thought the space was only for patients and patients thought the space was for the physicians. We wanted a name that more accurately reflected what we are and what we do and that was inclusive and welcoming to both hospital staff and their patients as well as the public. Health and Wellness Library reflects that we are a library that provides health and wellness information.

Anything else you'd like to add?

The Health and Wellness Library also conducts outreach. We participate in VCU/VCU Health and community health fairs where we provide attendees with health information and information about our library. We also provide health and wellness programming and health information literacy programs in the local community at the East End [branch of the Richmond] Public Library and the Health Hub at 25th.