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Linda Watson in front of several shelves of books

Health Sciences Libraries Director Linda Watson hopes to bring health information to every person in the state via My Health Minnesota --> Go Local.

Going far by going local

The Health Sciences Libraries launch a crusade for statewide health information

By Jessica Nordell

July 28, 2006

Spend five minutes in front of a computer with Linda Watson and you'll wish you had a librarian at your side every time you logged on. In a bright office at the top of Diehl Hall on the Twin Cities campus, Watson, director of Health Sciences Libraries at the University of Minnesota, demonstrates how to use a health Web site.

Her eyes sparkle behind delicate wire-rim glasses as she zips between pages. "Here's where you find all the latest press releases--here's where you can find a tutorial on knee surgery. Oh, and here are some pretty graphic surgery videos," she says. Watson navigates to a page featuring toxic chemicals found on farms, and she becomes positively animated while scrolling between information on chromium and asbestos.

As Watson steers nimbly through pages chock full of information, it becomes clear that the skills librarians offer are exactly what the Internet needs: the ability to manage, vet, and organize massive amounts of information. In the area of health information, this need is especially crucial--the wrong information can have dire consequences. And it just so happens that Watson is on a mission to bring flawless health information to every person in the state of Minnesota. Watson's initiative, a project called My Health Minnesota --> Go Local, is a Web site that will transform the way Minnesotans manage their health.

The project's parent site is MedlinePlus, a health information Web site operated by the National Library of Medicine and host to things like a medical dictionary and health check tools. It's widely used by patients, their families, and health care providers; in the first quarter of 2006, nearly 22 million unique visitors used the site. Here, one can find tutorials on problems like back pain and sleep disorders, videos of a living donor kidney transplant (not for the faint of heart), a step-by-step guide to having a CT scan, drug and herbal supplement information, and the latest news in health and medicine.

My Health Minnesota --> Go Local will be essentially a cataloging of all the health resources in the state.

Sarah Garbis, a former medical librarian at Hennepin County Medical Center and current librarian for the Hennepin County Libraries, has been using the site since its launch in 1999 to help library patrons, her family, her friends--and herself. "Just yesterday I looked up information on ankle pain," she says. "You can educate yourself before you see your doctor, and come up with questions to ask, or know what questions they might ask."

Until recently, however, a patient was on his or her own in finding that doctor. MedlinePlus Go Local, a series of state-specific companion sites--like the one Watson will create--catalog all the health resources in each state and direct users to health resources in their geographic region. With Go Local, a patient may navigate directly from a health topic--knee surgery, kidney transplant, or CT scan, for example--to local clinics, screening centers, and support groups.

Among the 13 states that have Go Local sites, these resources have proved tremendously useful. According to Peggy Richwine, project manager for Indiana Go Local, people often use the site to find nursing homes for elderly parents: in addition to basic information, the Indiana Go Local lists each home's evaluation from the State Board of Health.

Watson's goal--to demonstrate My Health Minnesota --> Go Local at the Minnesota State Fair this fall and launch the full site next January--is ambitious. The project is essentially a cataloging of all the health resources in the state; it requires an array of partners and volunteers who will help build and maintain the site, including University of Minnesota librarians, Mayo Clinic Libraries staff, library students, and rural librarians. Minnesota's State Library Office is providing financial support through a recently awarded grant. Librarians in rural Minnesota will be responsible for identifying additional resources and helping maintain the site, ensuring that information about specific clinics and doctors remains accurate. And Watson's team will visit the state's library systems to ensure they know what the site is and how best to use it.

With Go Local, Watson and her array of partners will extend librarian-tested health resources to the entire state. While some might be daunted by the sheer managerial skill needed to run the project, Watson is excited: she believes that involving people throughout the state in the creation of this site will spread the sense of ownership and that will help ensure its success. Everyone, she believes, should be able to make informed decisions about health and the more information people have, the better they'll be able to be make those decisions. Fortunately, Watson is in a position to ensure that the information itself is well organized, well managed and correct. Navigating the terrain of health information may be complex, but with My Health Minnesota --> Go Local, it'll be like having a librarian at your side, every step of the way.