Hispanic Heritage Month: Improving Access to Health Information

Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) celebrates the many contributions to U.S. society of people originating from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and South and Central America.

Today, there are almost 60 million Latinx-identifying or Spanish-speaking people in the United States (about 18% of the total U.S. population). Representing our nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority, the median age of the Hispanic population is 29.5 years, which is younger than the median age of about 38 years for the overall U.S. population. About 50% are female, almost half are married, and, unlike their non-Hispanic counterparts, they tend to live in households with children. The number of U.S.-born Hispanics is growing faster than the number of Hispanic immigrants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people of all races who identify as Hispanic are more likely to develop chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Each of these conditions can be managed, or even delayed or prevented, by engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors that include physical activity, healthy eating, and regular check-ups.

So, the health and the health information needs of Hispanics in the United States, and the well-documented disparities that exist between the Hispanic population and other populations, is of critical importance to NLM.

Our powerful consumer health information resource, MedlinePlus, and our Spanish-language version, MedlinePlus en Español, are trusted sources of accurate health information, and we strive to make them culturally sensitive, relevant, and accessible. Our amazing PubMed literature citation database promotes access to research literature in both English and Spanish, and our molecular resources allow for exploring the intersection of genetics and nationalistic identity.

In addition to these online resources, NLM supports Hispanic individuals, families, and groups through our National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM). Serving diverse communities, the NNLM provides another pathway for providing linguistically and culturally relevant health information.  

The NNLM is a powerful human network of over 7,000 academic health science libraries, hospital and public libraries, and community organizations that provide a point of presence in almost every county in the United States. Its eight Regional Medical Libraries (RMLs) make sure that up-to-date information about NLM’s resources are accessible to communities that are often underrepresented in biomedical research. Although all the RMLs provide access to information in English and Spanish, I’d like to highlight the efforts of two of our regions: the South Central Region, serving Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, and the Pacific Southwest Region, serving Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, and the U.S. Territories in the Pacific. Together, these two regions serve 28 million Hispanics — reaching almost half of the Spanish-speaking population in the United States.

The South Central Region supports the Spanish-speaking community specifically through many programs, including outreach to Presbyterian Española Hospital in Española, New Mexico, a special award to the University of North Texas Health Science Center to support a Library School student from a minority community, and emergency funding for Mobile Programming/Pop-up Program Resources & Tools to support disaster relief and response. The Pacific Southwest Region offers programs that engage community health workers/promotores through activities that address social determinants of health as an approach to health education and promotion in the Hispanic community.

But service to the Spanish-speaking public is not limited to the South Central and Pacific Southwest regions. The Middle Atlantic Region offers Spanish language health information resources on topics ranging from AIDS to cancer to diabetes. An interesting program from the Pacific Northwest Region is a grant to bring health information and access to MedlinePlus en Español over the airways from local public libraries to the region.

Because NNLM members are embedded in their communities, they can utilize NLM resources to meet the particular needs of that community. The professional librarians in these communities provide a feedback loop that helps NLM appreciate both the professional terminology associated with critical health concerns and the need to map local colloquial language for Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) to index the literature.  

The NNLM not only helps us extend the amazing federal investment from Washington, DC, to local communities, but also helps ensure that federal staff in Washington understand, in the vernacular, the health concerns of this important population.

During Hispanic Heritage Month — and throughout the year — it’s important to think about how NLM can better engage with the populations we serve. I welcome your suggestions to ensure that our vast and trustable resources serve everyone, everywhere.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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