Libraries - A Prescription for a Happier and Healthier Life
The County of Norfolk faces many health challenges. With a much older age profile than the national average, falls are a major reason for hospitalisation in the county. Over 16,000 people in are identified as having dementia. At the same time over two-thirds of the adult population are overweight and activity levels among children vary greatly as families struggle to include health and wellness as among their priorities.
Fortunately, Norfolk has a powerful ally in helping to promote happy and healthier lives: their libraries. In partnership with Public Health, Norfolk libraries have positioned themselves as centres for health information and promotion, offering not only signposting and referrals but support, activity, and of course books in the form of creative social reading, winning the 2016 CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award for their efforts.
Public libraries have always been a force for self-improvement and social betterment in England. With their trusted role and broad, deep reach into the communities they serve, libraries are the ideal vehicle for helping people address their individual health needs and achieve their personal wellness goals.
The NHS Five Year Forward View identifies self-care and self-management of long-term conditions as being key components to shifting focus from treating avoidable illnesses to an emphasis on preventative medicine. In order to realise this goal, the NHS recommends becoming a better partner to volunteer organisations and local communities, local authorities and local businesses. As councils are charged with responsibility for their communities’ public health and social wellbeing, public libraries are perfectly positioned as hubs for health information, health literacy and community support. By partnering with health providers to help people manage their own health, libraries help lessen the burden on the NHS; by offering resources to the community in a trusted and non-threatening venue, libraries help reduce deep-rooted health inequalities as well. Empowering people to practise self-care and self-management of long-term conditions helps prevent illness and promotes better health and wellbeing.
Libraries offer a wide range of quality-assured reading materials on various health topics in both print and electronic formats. In the Norfolk libraries, for example, librarians have curated reading lists about long-term conditions, mental health, dementia and topics of interest to young people such as anxiety, stress and bullying, branding under the title Reading Well. This collection also features a list of mood-boosting novels, poems and nonfiction selected by readers and reading groups, including a special reading list of books and other uplifting materials developed in conjunction with the Reading Agency and Macmillan Cancer Support and recommended by people who have been diagnosed with cancer.
Not only do libraries provide health-related materials to the community, but they also promote health literacy in general. According to a 2015 report by Public Health England and the Institute of Health Equity, as many as 61% of the working-age population in England finds it difficult to understand health and wellbeing information, impacting upon their ability to manage long-term conditions, make healthy lifestyle choices and keep to their medication regimes. People with limited or low health literacy are more likely to experience increased hospitalisation, depression or develop avoidance illnesses and other health problems due to lack of preventative care. They also have less access to appropriate health services and consequently make greater use of accident and emergency services. People with low health literacy also have less effective communication with their practitioners, leading to their health needs either being not adequately addressed or hidden entirely. Libraries help promote health literacy by serving as guides in making sense of the overwhelming and potentially confusing amount of information available to the public, helping people find credible sources and evaluate the trustworthiness of consumer health information available via print, online and in the broadcast media.
Libraries are also social hubs, serving as safe and non-stigmatised spaces for the community to find support for managing long-term conditions and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Through programmes, activities, and partnerships with local health and wellness organisations, libraries extend health care services beyond the hospital and general practitioners’ offices. At the Norfolk libraries, they have organised hula-hoop fitness activities, offered colour-me-well programs to promote better mental health and even incorporated a pedal-powered “smoothie bike” and encouraged local supermarkets to donate fruit and veg so people could blend their own healthy smoothies. In addition to these planned activities, libraries can help reduce social isolation as well. According to a 2013 study, 59% of adults over the age of 52 who were in poor health reported feeling lonely often, compared to only 21% of healthy adults in the same age demographic. In other words, libraries contribute to happy and healthy lives simply by being welcoming to all people.
In Norfolk, the Healthy Libraries Project is a collaborative effort between the libraries and Public Health. But it also involves many other partners from the county of Norfolk, including volunteers, local practitioners, GP surgeons and dentists, pharmacies, supermarkets, shops and community organisations supporting a wide range of public health initiatives ranging from healthy food choices to positive learning outcomes. By embracing the “hub and spoke model” the Norfolk libraries have embedded themselves as an integral part of the local public health infrastructure and serve as a model for cooperation with the NHS to inform and empower people to practise both self-care of their long-term conditions and self-management of their own health and wellbeing. While there is no “one size fits all” panacea for better public health outcomes in England, libraries are surely an important part of the prescription.