Health sector

What does information literacy mean for the UK Health sector? Dr Marc Forster (Health Sector Representative on the CILIP Information Literacy Group) explains…

Role of information literacy in the health sector

In the ‘Health Sector’ in which doctors, nurses, midwives, health care assistants and a wide range of other professionals work to promote the health of the public, information is a vital resource. Information needs are felt, information is sought, located and exchanged, interpreted and acted upon, continuously.
Hence Information Literacy is at the root of all aspects of Health Sector activity and is an essential attribute for the health and social care workforce. It allows health professionals to:

  • Operate as effective and safe practitioners
  • Operate as part of a multidisciplinary team
  • Help patients and the public achieve ‘health literacy’ (‘a person’s ability to find, understand and act on health information’ (Zarcadoolas, Pleasant and Greer, 2012, p.1)

A key aspect of Information literacy’s importance in the health and social care sector is in the context of evidence based practice. Evidence based practice states that health and social care workers should aim to integrate the best available evidence into their decisions about patient and population health. In practice this involves ‘the integration of research evidence, clinical expertise and the interpretation of patients’ needs and perspectives in making decisions.’ (Craig and Stevens 2012, p.3).

Role of heath information professionals supporting information literacy

The Development of Information Literacy in the Workforce
The role of Information professionals is a vital one:
‘The drive towards EBP and care makes it essential that students become information literate and acquire the skills to become lifelong learners.’ (Bailey et al 2007, p.78)
‘A barrier to EBP has been identified as a need for improved information literacy and includes recognition of information required and the development of skills for locating, evaluating, and effectively using relevant evidence.’ (Ross 2010, p.64)

Health information workers can help support health and social care workers and students through:

  • Workshops on searching for research evidence, critical appraisal and management of information
  • Drop-ins, one-to-ones and enquiry work for students and clinicians, in which the librarian can show how information literacy can function in educational or clinical skills development or ‘problem solving’.
  • Information Literacy modules or programmes in which all the knowledge and competencies felt to be part of Information Literacy in the sector are developed in a structured curriculum. These aren’t common but do exist in some university courses for health professionals (Forster, 2009). They can be based on the SCONUL 7 pillars, or a general understanding of the needs of health professionals as accumulated by librarians.Some modules or published module frameworks as based on research into the Information Literacy ‘experiences’ of the group or profession in question. The content of a module based on research evidence into the actual experience of Information Literacy by nurses is given below.

Clinical librarianship
Clinical and outreach librarian roles involve carrying out literature searching on behalf of health professionals. The librarian is part of the clinical team and must work quickly and accurately to find relevant research evidence and other information so that care and treatment can be decided on in a timely fashion. It is a satisfying but demanding role!
This is an expanding sector of the health information professional workforce and research has shown that such librarians do make a difference to the quality of care (Brettle et al. 2011).

Helping to Develop Health Literacy in Patients and the Public
Information professionals can help patients and the public find and critique information relating to their health and that of their families. With a wide range of information available on such sites as NHS Choices, and in the context of the new NHS initiative ‘Patient Online’, the public have a wider than ever access to and need for quality information to keep themselves informed about their health and to make decisions about treatment; however there is still a great deal of inaccurate and non-evidence-based information on the web. Information Professionals are employed by NHS websites and hospital libraries to help the public achieve Information Literacy in this hugely important context.
Some health professionals are themselves trained to help patients in this way through undertaking ‘Health Literacy’ modules as part of Health promotion or Public Health courses. Information professionals can use this potential means of collaboration to reinforce their Information Literacy development role.

Examples of resources for teaching information literacy in the health sector

Search frameworks
A brief sample of guidance available to health information professionals:

Critical appraisal checklists

An example of an Evidence-Based Information Literacy module

An example of an Evidence-Based Information Literacy Module.

What can you do?

The CILIP ILG research bursaries may be of help to you if you want to carry out your own research in this area.

If you are already developing information literacy programmes in the health sector, particularly the NHS, then the CILIP ILG want to hear from you. If you are thinking of developing a programme, then we may be able to put you in touch with others who have experience that can help you. The CILIP Information Literacy Group site collects and makes available information literacy practices that can help you, including practitioner research. Some of this is from other sectors, but there are common lessons for all.


Bailey, P. , Derbyshire, J. , Harding, A. , Middleton, A. , Rayson, K. and Syson, L. (2007) Assessing the impact of a study skills programme on the academic development of nursing diploma students at Northumbria University, UK. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 24(Suppl 1), p.77-85.
Brettle, A. , Maden-Jenkins, M. , Anderson, L. , McNally, R. , Pratchett, T. , Tancock, J. , Thornton, D. and Webb, A. (2011) Evaluating clinical librarian services: a systematic review. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 28(1), p.3-22.
Craig, J.V. and Stevens, K.R. (2012) EBP in nursing. In: Smyth, R.L. and Craig, J.V. The EBP manual for nurses. 3rd ed. Edinburgh : Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, p.3-26.
Forster, M. (2009) SEARCH for Health: Developing a Credited Module in Health Information Skills. New Review of Academic Librarianship, 15(2), p.160-172.
Forster, M. (2015a) Developing an ‘Experience Framework’ for an Evidence-Based Information Literacy Educational Intervention. Journal of Documentation. In Press.
Forster, M. (2015b) 6 Ways Of Experiencing Information Literacy In Nursing – The Findings Of A Phenomenographic Study. Nurse Education Today, 35(1), p.195–200.
Ross, J. (2010) Information literacy for EBP in perianesthesia nurses: readiness for EBP. Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing, 25(2), p.64-70.
Zarcadoolas, C., Pleasant, P. and Greer, D.S. (2012) Advancing Health Literacy: A Framework for Understanding and Action. London: John Wiley.

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