in monthly conference calls for a period of two years in order
to define MLA’s health information literacy mission. When the
task force concluded its work in April 2005, it emerged having
addressed seven key objectives:
1. Develop a working definition of “health information literacy.”
MLA defined “health information literacy” in 2005 as the
set of abilities needed to: recognize a health information
need; identify likely information sources and use them to
retrieve relevant information; assess the quality of the information and its applicability to a specific situation; and analyze, understand and use the information to make good
2. Identify current and potential MLA activities that support
health information literacy. Among other things, the Health
Information Literacy Task Force during its two-year tenure
created a dedicated health information literacy section on
the MLA Web site, compiled and distributed lists of trusted
health information resources and Web sites, created a consumer health library directory, authored a User’s Guide to
Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web, and
created a DVD and a bookmark highlighting the association’s health information literacy efforts.
3. Identify potential partners. As part of its initial health information literacy efforts, MLA established strategic partnerships with the American Library Association, the Pfizer
Foundation’s Partnership for Clear Health Communications,
the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information
Science, the National Network of Libraries of Medicine and
the National Library of Medicine.
4. Recommend an MLA structure to coordinate activities.
Upon completing its work, the Health Information Literacy
Task Force bequeathed leadership of MLA’s health information literacy efforts to the association’s pre-existing consumer
health group, the Consumer and Patient Health Information
Section. Additionally, the task force worked with MLA’s
Continuing Education Committee to establish for librarians
a Consumer Health Information Specialization certification,
Components of the Medical Library Association’s health information literacy efforts.
An Information Prescription
In order to increase awareness of health information
resources — including hospital libraries — among both doctors and patients, MLA recently partnered with the National
Library of Medicine to test the idea of a “health information prescription.”
As part of the pilot for its Health Information Literacy
Research Project, MLA asked participating hospital libraries
to distribute customized prescription pads that physicians
could use to “prescribe” information for their patients. In
addition to medication, doctors could use the pads to recommend specific Web sites and libraries to their patients.
“Librarians gave prescription pads to health professionals in their institutions and asked them to prescribe the
library to their patients as part of the instructions they get
when they leave the doctor’s office,” says MLA President
Mary Ryan. “The message was: Take these drugs, get this
filled and then take this prescription to your library and learn
more about this topic so that you can make better decisions
about your treatment.”
as well as a series of topical continuing education courses
offered online and in person at MLA national and regional
5. Identify questions and research opportunities. Prior to dissolving in 2005, the Health Information Literacy Task Force
surveyed MLA members to determine their comfort with and
involvement in health information literacy issues, and to
measure their awareness of the association’s efforts. Approximately 87 percent of survey respondents said MLA should
be involved in promoting health information literacy resources.
6. Develop a communication plan. A subcommittee of the
Health Information Literacy Task Force developed a communications toolkit for MLA members to help them market the
role of information and librarians in promoting health literacy. It included communications goals, target audiences and
key talking points.
7. Develop a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of MLA’s
health information literacy work. The Health Information
Literacy Task Force found in its member survey that approximately 58 percent of MLA members were aware of the task
force’s existence. In order to evaluate awareness of ongoing
efforts, it recommended monitoring traffic on relevant areas
of the MLA Web site to determine member response to new
and existing health information literacy resources.
Lost — and Found — in Translation
Although its Health Information Literacy Task Force represented
and initiated a formal effort by MLA to pursue health information literacy platforms and projects, the association had flirted
with health literacy long before Watson issued her 2002 call to
action. In fact, in 1998 — in the midst of celebrating its centennial year — MLA debuted a consumer health brochure designed
to help patients get more involved in their own health care. The
brochure, “Deciphering Medspeak,” contained more than 100
medical definitions and a list of prescription shorthand terms.
“We published the brochure trying to promote the value of
our members,” Funk says. “Prior to that, for the first time we