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Read Up on an Unorthodox Way to Help the Medically Underserved: Libraries


Medically underserved populations often turn to other sources to diagnose their health complaints— family, friends, social media and the internet, to name a few. But, as author Neil Gaiman points out, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

As it happens, research shows that libraries occupy a unique position when it comes to addressing public health needs, especially in communities that, through geography or demographics, are considered medically underserved. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, public libraries have long been a haven for homeless populations in search of a refuge from inclement weather or an internet connection.

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers,
a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Let’s take a closer look at how residents of these at-risk communities are finding answers to their health concerns at libraries and how healthcare providers can tap into libraries as an extension to their services.


Health Interventions Courtesy of Your Local Public Library

Last year, the Huffington Post reported on a program designed to connect the homeless with social and mental health services. Approximately 15 percent of the 5,000 patrons using the San Francisco Public Library’s daily are homeless. Nearly a decade ago, the library decided to embrace its role. It supplemented its staff with a full-time psychiatric social worker who conducts clinical assessments and facilitates homeless patrons’ enrollment in social and mental health services—helping 800 people as of 2016.

In addition, the library introduced a 12-week vocational rehabilitation program, often hiring its graduates to help keep the library clean and running smoothly. The San Francisco Public Library program has inspired more libraries develop their own outreach programs for homeless patrons. In Pima County, Arizona, for example, nurses visit the libraries to offer blood pressure screenings and identify people in need of medical care.


Libraries Address Critical Health Literacy Issues

The homeless aren’t the only medically underserved populations that benefit from library programs. Since more than 90 million adults in the U.S. have low health literacy, libraries play a critical role in helping people understand health information and accesses appropriate services—especially among medically underserved populations.

And it’s not just libraries. In rural South Carolina, one library branch manager found she was fielding many health-related questions at the beauty salon she owned. At first, she would print out information at the library and bring it back to the salon to help clients affected by high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer and more.

library-public-health.jpgEventually, she applied for a grant and added a computer to the salon, where she trains people how to use MedlinePlus to search for information on health and fitness, managing chronic conditions or upcoming procedures. Since receiving the funding, the library and beauty salon have hosted more than 200 sessions, training 2,000 medically underserved individuals on how to use MedlinePlus.

A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia—which was published in Health Affairs in November 2016—found that libraries can be an effective component in community outreach for medically underserved populations. Based on the questions librarians are answering, Free Library branches throughout the city develop health-specific programming. South Philadelphia branch librarian Will Torrence notes that the Free Library’s internal research had already found that 33 percent of questions asked are health-related.

If healthcare providers understand how individual patients prefer to get their health information, they can tap into libraries as an extension to their services.

As a result of their research, the library offers Medicare enrollment assistance, health fairs for expectant women and new parents and multi-lingual resources to support immigrant populations. In addition, the library helps people find appropriate information resources when they have questions about a diagnosis.

Often, Torrence says, the librarians help patrons recognize reputable sources from overwhelming Google search results. They encourage patrons to look at who is responsible for the website; a known medical institution like the Mayo Clinic or an organization like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will likely provide better, more balanced information than a brand with a vested interest in attracting customers.


Using Psychographic Segmentation to Improve Access to Health Information

If healthcare providers understand how individual patients prefer to get their health information, they can tap into libraries as an extension to their services. This is especially true of providers in medically underserved areas that find their resources stretched thin.

Psychographic segmentation defines distinct consumer types based on their attitudes about health and wellness as well as preferred or trusted sources of health information. Based on c2b solution’s proprietary psychographic segmentation model, for example, Balance Seekers see healthcare professionals as just one resource for health advice, even though they are one of the more health-proactive and wellness oriented segments.


The c2b Consumer Diagnostic, a national study on healthcare consumer attitudes, needs and behaviors across channels of healthcare, provides a wealth of insights on each of five distinct psychographic segments. This includes preferred sources of healthcare information and how to engage each segment to motivate behavior change.  The data can be further analyzed by demographics and socioeconomics among the psychographic segments to focus on insights among the underserved.

By understanding these unique attitudes, healthcare providers can customize communications—including, when appropriate, referring them to additional sources of health information like public libraries—to support their preferences and motivate patient engagement despite the challenges medically underserved communities face.  

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change


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