What Role Should Libraries Play in Preventing Opioid Abuse?

The abuse of opioids (both prescription and illegal) is a major public health crisis in the US.  The Centers for Disease Control describe how 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, and the number of opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999.  More overdoses are occurring at public libraries, which leads to the question: what roles should librarians have in helping to prevent and treat opioid abuse?

Public Libraries Preventing and Treating Overdoses

A coworker recently shared a fantastic article with me from American Libraries (a publication of the American Library Association) by Anne Ford, called “Saving Lives in the Stacks.”  The article describes how many public libraries are taking active steps to prevent overdoses onsite, such as:

  • Monitoring public bathroom use (to prevent overdoses in restroom stalls).
  • Training staff to administer Narcan (generic name naloxone), a medication that can reverse the life-threatening effects of opioid overdose while waiting for emergency services to arrive.

Public librarians often take on a wide variety of roles, ranging from teacher to program planner, but do librarians also need medical training to act as first responders?  This question raises legal and ethical issues beyond what I’m able to answer myself, but there is one role that I’m confident librarians can fill during this public health crisis: as information providers.

Information on Opioid Addiction and Treatment

Medical, academic, and public librarians are working to create a range of online information tools for both the general public and for healthcare professionals on preventing and treating opioid addiction:

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Opioid Abuse and Addiction Health Topics page on MedlinePlus.
  • Public Libraries: Some public libraries also provide LibGuides or online lists about opioid prevention and treatment resources (especially information on local resources), such as the Westport Library in Westport, CT or the Memorial Hall Library in Andover, MA.

Public librarians, especially those who have to handle actual overdoses and even provide emergency medical treatment, are true heroes in this battle, and all libraries (including academic and medical) can work to provide reliable information to the public and healthcare professionals on prevention and treatment resources for opioid addiction.

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My 5 Favorite Consumer Health Resources on MedlinePlus

MedlinePlus is, without a doubt, my favorite online consumer health resource.  MedlinePlus is the main consumer health portal created by the National Library of Medicine, and it has strict criteria to ensure that it only links to and publishes reliable, accessible, and high quality health information. The site offers a variety of tools for both the general public and healthcare professionals who work with the public, ranging from a medical encyclopedia to videos and multilingual patient information.

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Homepage of MedinePlus.

Here’s a quick list of my features on MedlinePlus:

  • Health Topics – Currently over 1000 Health Topics pages are available on MedlinePlus, and they cover “symptoms, causes, treatment and prevention for over 1000 diseases, illnesses, health conditions and wellness issues.”  The Health Topics pages include a basic summary about the health condition, followed by an organized list of links to relevant websites related to the condition.  Navigate through the list of links using a menu at the top of the page, with sections on latest news, diagnosis and tests, treatment, genetics, health check tools, clinical trials (links to ClinicalTrials.gov), journal articles (links to PubMed), find an expert, patient handouts, and much more.  The Health Topics pages also link to information on the health topic in multiple languages and related medical encyclopedia articles.
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Health Topics page on skin cancer from MedlinePlus.
  • Drugs and Supplements – Browse lists of generic or brand-name drugs and medical supplements to find information on “side effects, dosage, special precautions, and more.”  The pages on individual drugs and supplements include all information on one page (which can be easily printed), in consumer-friendly language.
  • Medical Encyclopedia – Browse through over 4,000 articles from the A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia on a broad variety of “diseases, tests, symptoms, injuries, and surgeries.”  The medical encyclopedia pages include links to other related encyclopedia articles and health topics, as well as medical photographs and illustrations.
  • Tutorials on Understanding Medical Words and Evaluating Health Information – The Videos and Tools section of MedlinePlus includes many useful links to health videos, health check tools, and games, but I want to highlight two tutorials available on MedlinePlus which tackle topics important to most people who aren’t healthcare professionals.  The “Understanding Medical Words” tutorial can be used to gain a better understanding of medical terminology and improve communication between patients and doctors, while the “Evaluating Health Information” tutorial teaches viewers how to judge the reliability of information found on health-related websites.
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Interactive tutorial “Understanding Medical Words.”

MedlinePlus has a number of additional features, like the latest health news and links to organizations and directories.  The site is an indispensable resource for the general public and any professional who provides health information to the public, due to its reliability, ease of searching, and wide variety of topics.