Table of Contents page


Consumer Health Reference
Basic Guidelines: The Interview



Patrons seek personal health information to “extend, confirm, or refute” what has been learned from their physicians, or about conditions or outcomes they fear (Rees 1982).  Often the information sought is for family or friends.  The information they bring you may be incomplete or inaccurate.  They may be embarrassed or touchy about the subject.


Identify the need by asking open-ended clarification questions: “What have you already found?”  “Tell me more about what you’re looking for.”


Do establish rapport by maintaining direct eye contact and relaxed but professional posture.  This sends a message that you are nonjudgmental and empathetic – just what the patron needs, along with accurate information.


 Use mirroring technique to confirm your understanding of the person’s concerns:  “What I hear you say is that you are looking for information on X, is that right?”


Do not use your own experience or the experiences of others to empathise, because

  • the patron needs information, not anecdote. 

  • your experiences may not be generalizable to other situations

  • doing so changes the character of the interview to a more personal encounter, rather than a professional one. 

Do not interpret information for the patron.  Instead,

  • attempt to find other valid information that might help to clarify

  • use the medical dictionary and other basic resources

  • refer the person to their health care provider.

If you are uncertain about the information you find – say soUse the opportunity to explain that it does not appear current or authoritative, and why.  Don’t hesitate to refer if

  • you cannot find information to answer the need

  • you feel the question topic is beyond your level of expertise


·             Disclaimers:  In any instance of seeking health information, it is important to clarify with the patron that the information found may or may not apply to the patron’s specific condition, and all questions should be directed to their health care professional (Allcock 2000).


Allcock JA. (2000). Helping Public Library Patrons Find Medical Information– The Reference Interview. Public Library Quarterly,  18(3/4):21-27

Rees, A.M., ed. Developing Consumer Health Information Services. New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1982.






Consumer Health Reference
Basic Guidelines: The Information


Levels of need


Basic:  What is it?  Where can I find a specialist in …?

Resources:  Dictionaries, Anatomy texts, portal resources like Medlineplus

Comment: Help the patron by showing them how to use the resource, do not do so for them.


Intermediate:  Summative information about conditions (“I need to learn everything about x”)

Resources:  Consumer health databases, portal resources like Medlineplus

Comment:  A good place to start!  Suggest to the patron that this article may help them identify further questions, which they should feel free to ask.


Advanced:   Specific, sophisticated need for information beyond the level of most consumer health resources.

Resources:  CINAHL, nursing texts, association websites, PubMed

Comment:  Aside from the resources listed, professional associations often have support forums where people share and discuss the latest clinical trials and medical news. 


Evidence-based consumer health information


“If patients are to be active participants in decisions about their care the information they are given must accord with available evidence and be presented in a form that is acceptable and useful”  (Coulter 1998).

  • Use the best quality resource you can find.  Don’t hesitate to use this opportunity to talk about this to the patron – it builds credibility. 

  • Consider the informational encounter an opportunity to help strengthen the patient-healthcare provider relationship. 

  • Learning about controversies, and the different options for treatment, are important parts of consumer health information.

Health Literacy


Definition: “the ability for patients and health care consumers to read, understand, and apply medical information in a meaningful way” (Coulter 1999).

  • Many – perhaps most – resources are written at high literacy levels.

  • If this is a problem for your patron, look for low-literacy alternatives.  Medlineplus is a great place to start.

  • Your patron may not feel comfortable in telling you this is a problem.  When possible, offer multiple formats (such as Medlineplus’ Flash tutorials, which provide video and audio reinforcement to a print document. 


Coulter, A. “Evidence Based Patient Information.” BMJ 317(July 25, 1998):225-6