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Health Care Comes to Public Libraries

In a growing number of libraries, patrons can check out a book and get a check-up in one visit.

Despite years of cutbacks in staff, hours and financial support, the nation’s 8,951 public libraries remain, for many communities, an important social center. More than just lending books and DVDs, libraries offer all kinds of programs on important issues, not the least of which is health. It’s hard to find a library that doesn’t offer some kind of wellness class. But it is rare to find a library system that offers actual health care.

Libraries have hired child psychologists, social workers and language teachers. But only one public library system is known to employ a full-time nurse: the 27-branch Pima County, Ariz., Public Library. Nurses from the county’s Department of Health take turns working with library management and security personnel to assist customers with social, behavioral, physical and emotional problems, as well as performing health screenings and occasional immunization clinics.

“This has been a tremendous collaboration between the library and the health department,” says Amber D. Mathewson, library service manager. “Public health nurses have direct contact with individuals who might not know about their services. Having nurses regularly visit libraries has helped to de-escalate incidences with individuals who are mentally ill and need to connect with services, and has helped individuals make connections that might have ended up in 911 calls.”

Like Pima County, the Queens, N.Y., library system, which is one of the largest in the country with 62 locations, has an onsite health-care program. It partnered with the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and other health and community organizations to offer a program called Queens ConnectCare at eight libraries in the neighborhoods of Rockaway and Jamaica. Both these neighborhoods are government-designated health professional shortage areas. The program offers free health screenings for conditions like high blood pressure and blood sugar, and helps those who need it to make an appointment with an Addabbo physician.

Queens ConnectCare is about two years old, says Savitri Seupersad, the program’s health outreach specialist, and it’s funded by a grant from the New York State Health Foundation. Usually a class—say, Zumba fitness or healthy cooking—is scheduled to draw people in, and those who attend can get screened at the same time. “Screenings are the foundation of the program,” says Seupersad. “As far as we know, we are the only library in the country to offer them like this.” She says that there is at least one program offered almost every day at one or more of the library branches.

Much of the participating population is uninsured, and a significant number are undocumented, so they are unfamiliar with the health-care system. “We explain the process to them,” she says. “A lot of our customers are concerned about the cost, and Addabbo has a sliding fee scale so people are billed based on their income. It’s a good way for undocumented people to receive care.”

Seupersad, who has a master’s degree in public health from Hunter College, was initially surprised at the program’s success. “I don’t live in Queens, so I didn’t know how heavily used the libraries are here,” she says. “We can get 50 people at an exercise class. That’s huge.” But the high turnout for the programs was not a surprise to Susan Benton, president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council. Libraries rank high on the list of government agencies people trust, she says. “Libraries are incredibly flexible and innovative in meeting the needs of the community they serve,” Benton explains.

Albert Einstein College is analyzing the data out of Queens to determine whether wellness classes themselves have an impact on enrollment into primary care. Seupersad, for one, is already convinced that these programs have value. “[There] was more need than I realized when I started, and I think we are succeeding.”

David Levine is a GOVERNING contributor.
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