There are more than 17,000 public libraries in the United States, generally open seven days a week, and they don’t discriminate as to who can walk through their doors. People of any age go to libraries for many different reasons, the most common being access to computers and assistance to search for health information, and often find kind, compassionate staff there to help.
Under the leadership of Lisa Benz Scott, a ’94 Stony Brook alumnus and professor and executive director with the Program in Public Health — and in collaboration with faculty in the Schools of Nursing, Social Welfare, Health Professions, the Renaissance School of Medicine and the Health Sciences Library — the Stony Brook Medicine Healthy Libraries Program (HeLP) has trained and supervised hundreds of students as part of interprofessional teams assisting librarians and patrons in Suffolk County public libraries.
HeLP began in 2020 with about 800 student-patron interactions per academic year and has grown steadily since then. Student teams deliver health programs and case management under the supervision of faculty preceptors, at no cost to libraries or patrons. They provide free services like blood pressure screening and education, both in-person and online.
The partnership between Stony Brook’s Health Sciences schools and Suffolk public libraries enhances the health and well-being of residents through library programming, collection development and dissemination of information on current health topics. HeLP partners with the Suffolk Cooperative Library System and 12 local public libraries.
“When I was a child, the library was a place my parents dropped me and my siblings off to do my homework in a quiet safe place,” said Benz Scott, director of HeLP. “The library of today has expanded to become a center of community life and enrichment. This is especially true in communities where patrons are high-need and are looking for basic survival support like assistance with housing and mental health issues, unemployment, and food.”
Benz Scott explained that some libraries are employing part- or full-time social workers to help patrons with needs like shelter, access to health insurance, mental health and primary care providers, and supplemental nutrition programs like WIC and SNAP. Many Long Island libraries also have the benefit of the School of Social Welfare’s MSW (Master of Social Work) interns, led by field-work supervisor Leah Topek-Walker.
“The students learn so much about other health professions, their own roles, and what it means to be part of work that is entered in and around under-resourced communities,” said Topek-Walker, assistant clinical professor, Health Sciences Center at Stony Brook. “They walk away with skills and competency in teamwork, confidence in themselves, and a deeper understanding of what it means to need resources to maintain basic human rights. Students learn how they can be impactful in communities and make a real difference in people’s lives.”
To get HeLP started, Benz Scott and students she supervised interviewed almost 100 Long Island library directors and other personnel — from clerks to security guards and janitors — to learn about their communities’ health and social needs, how the libraries were supporting them, and what gaps needed to be addressed. To her surprise, she found that library workers were routinely asked to deal with situations for which they were not trained.
“We heard about opioid overdoses in bathrooms, homeless patrons looking to clean up and rest from the heat of a summer day or the cold in the winter, and one story of a patron coming into a library with a gun,” Benz Scott said. “It’s not unusual for librarians to manage mental health disturbances. Librarians are often the first responders to a health crisis even though they are not specifically trained to be in that role.”
Benz Scott said that in 2017-18, as the opioid crisis on Long Island became an epidemic, many librarians volunteered to be trained on dealing with opioid overdoses and in using the Narcan kits used to reverse overdoses.
“They did this even though it’s beyond their responsibility because the library was a place where overdoses were happening,” she said. “This inspired me to find ways for students and faculty in the health and social work professions to work together in this non-clinical setting.”
Benz Scott met with deans and program directors of Stony Brook’s health science schools and asked if they would support a partnership for team-based interprofessional field-based training in the public library space.
“The School of Social Welfare was already placing Social Work interns in public libraries,” she said. “With social work as a starting point we added more professions and built a team.”
The team now includes students from nursing, public health, social work and physician assistants. Students in the registered dietician program give talks about nutrition and health, and library scientists offer trainings regarding search engines to identify current evidence-based sources of health information. Students spend several hours each week rotating through eight Suffolk libraries and do additional programming on weekends at additional locations.
“We’ll see about 450 individual patrons with some coming back for two or more interactions over a calendar year,” said Benz Scott. “A single patron might get assistance by a social worker to apply for Medicaid or Medicare, get a blood pressure screening by a PA or a nursing student, get information about a chronic or infectious disease by a public health student, and/or work with the team to assist with finding housing, primary care, or more. If they don’t have a source of care the social work student will assist them with resources that are available through Stony Brook Medicine or perhaps a federally qualified health center location.”
For the students, the work is integrated into their credits in their required coursework.
“They have elected to do their work in a community-based setting instead of a clinical one,” said Benz Scott. “Nursing students need to be able to educate and counsel patrons in these situations. It’s part of primary preventive healthcare.”
She added an understanding of the social and behavioral determinants of health are now integral parts of the health professions. “Healthcare and social service professionals and hospitals must respond to the social determinants of health and the prevention of chronic disease, health disparities, health equity, and access to quality preventive services and primary care for all populations,” she said.
HeLP is free to the communities it serves. “We are actively evaluating HeLP for student learning and community impact, publishing and presenting findings so that other communities can replicate the model that we’ve created in other academic health centers,” said Benz Scott. “It’s a great example of interprofessional education, collaboration, training and team-based work.
Communities that don’t come to clinical settings are precisely the ones the HeLP program hopes to reach. “We need to go where people are, and where they are is community locations like hair salons, barber shops, supermarkets, and the public library,” said Benz Scott.
Staff at local libraries have welcomed the support. Alumna Valerie Lewis ’91, administrator of outreach services for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, interacts with staff from the eight library locations that host the HeLP team. “The feedback is overwhelmingly positive,” she said. The team has been well-received, and in some of the libraries, the demand for services has patrons lined up.
“The blood pressure screenings and social work assistance has proven to be a positive addition to each community,” Lewis said. “Being able to provide access to these services, outside of the traditional medical environment, enables us to address health-related disparities and leads to more people receiving access to healthcare across Suffolk County.”
Benz Scott said the program has only scratched the surface of what interprofessional education and community partnerships could look like.
“The future of health care must consider the role of public libraries in assisting communities to access healthcare through technology,” she said. “There are already examples of telehealth pods in remote rural community libraries but the logistics are not worked out. Stony Brook is a place of innovation and excellence in research and has the potential to lead this intersection of clinical care and community life. We’re not there yet, but with vision and resources we absolutely could be.”
— Robert Emproto