Dr Malcolm Rigler, a health ambassador at the Patients’ Association, is pushing for libraries, particularly in rural areas, to work with GP practices and other healthcare professionals to help educate patients.
Libraries could help promote informed consent for medical interventions and assist in finding information about health conditions, he believes.
Dr Rigler, a Somerset GP, has gained the backing of the new national librarian for Wales, Professor Aled Gruffydd Jones.
Dr Rigler said he was concerned by issues of informed consent. He said when ministers talkabout patient choice, they often meant choice of provider rather than choice in treatment.
Lack of time and resources in general practice meant some patients were not properly informed about their conditions and treatment, he added, and libraries can fill the gap. ‘Libraries have always served that [educational] purpose for many people,’ he explained.
In rural areas, where there is reduced access to services and internet access, Dr Rigler said, libraries could be used to provide public health information and ‘guided web surfing’, with healthcare professionals on hand to help patients understand their conditions using online resources.
‘Imagine you live in Cheddar, but you have an appointment in Bristol to do with your ear nose and throat,’ said Dr Rigler. ‘You are told you have eustachian tube dysfunction; you have five minutes with the consultant, and then you go home, with just the name of your condition. Now, do you go to your GP for an explanation? Or do you go to the local library, where guided web browsing is on offer?’
Professor Jones said the national library could share information literacy skills to promote health education: ‘I know from personal experience how difficult it is for a family with someone with chronic illness; the patient is looked after very well by the NHS, and primary care, but the rest of the family are constantly searching for information. And I think there, we do have a role.’
He said he was anxious to follow up Dr Rigler’s proposals to set up a national system to provide health information services: ‘I was very attracted to the notion of training a body of people up, almost like barefoot doctors, to go out there and spread good practice and take people to where there is good, reliable information to be found.’
Dr Rigler will present his plans, which he says could be ‘transformational’ for general practice, at the Rural Health Network (RHN) conference in Exeter next month.
‘As GPs, we don’t have a future that is credible unless we not only use the library for support, but build proper partnerships around informed consent and patient education,' he said.
‘General practice has become a bit of a nightmare for many doctors, because patients keep asking questions. And we doctors still only have the five- to eleven-minute consultation. I just think libraries are our best allies and partners, and our future lies in getting into bed with them.’