Health, Culture, and Community

Personal history impacts how we understand health information.

A terra cotta sun

While in New Mexico last month, I came upon something profound at the Albuquerque Museum.

While I enjoyed the exhibitions and sculptures very much, it was a sign that really got me thinking:

Art in New Mexico is characterized by celebration of tradition, innovation within heritage, and groundbreaking developments of new forms and ideas. Many museums make sense of this diversity by dividing cultures into more clearly identified groups. However, humans do not always live in easily explained communities.

“Humans do not always live in easily explained communities.”

Wow.

This sentence hit me hard.

It also got me thinking about NLM. We’re an institution with a great heritage. We’re on the verge of even more groundbreaking developments and new ideas. And we’re exploring how to better reach out to a more diverse audience.

We try our best to reach every possible individual and audience and yet, when faced with the challenges of making information available and accessible to all, we sometimes fall back on convenient nationalistic or linguistic characterizations.

For example, people appreciate and use the resources we’ve translated into Spanish, from MedlinePlus en español to infoSIDA and MeSH, but is it enough?

We partner with the Pan American Health Organization to strengthen local and national infrastructures regarding disaster health information, we fund research into health disparities, and we reach out to Hispanic Americans and other minority groups, but can we do more?

How might the quote above, from the Albuquerque Museum, inspire us to think differently about what we do and how we do it?

I don’t have all the answers, but let me tell you what I’m thinking.

First, we must bring our materials into the lives of people we serve in a way that includes both hope and authority. Too often those involved in health care emphasize factual accuracy and professional expertise—to the exclusion of anything else—when they impart health information. Obviously, accuracy and authority matter tremendously, but hope has its place. By providing information in a more helpful and hopeful way, we may even accelerate the compliance with, insights into, or adoption of healthful living that the information is intended to produce.

Next, we must respect the fact that knowledge is shaped by culture and customs. As we share the biomedical knowledge of the world with the world, we should convey the perspective and culture embedded in the work. Knowledge without context, or without cultural competence, is often neither heard nor believed.

And finally, we must remember that, like art in a museum, how people view what they’re seeing matters.

Our ability to understand and act (or fail to act) upon health information is ultimately impacted by our personal history—from experiences to feelings to underlying and often unspoken assumptions and ideas. Rather than blank slates, passively receiving new content, people are active participants in discovering the usefulness of and meaning in the health information they’re given.

Accommodating complexity is not easy, so I’ll continue to mull over how NLM can help, but I invite your ideas, too.

How does your community or your experience shape how you receive health information? How can we deliver health information in a way that takes into account the complexity of our country’s communities?

 

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

One thought on “Health, Culture, and Community”

  1. As a school librarian, this post resonated with me. My colleague and I are very passionate about teaching our students health information literacy as part of our library curriculum. This post gave us much to think about as we teach our diverse student population.

    Like

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