Could libraries become the newest healthcare hotspot?

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Jun 22, 2021

As is the case for many others, the library has played an instrumental role in my life. Far more than just a book-lending paradise, in many towns and cities across the country, it’s a community hub, offering a number of social and educational programs for all ages, such as book clubs and homework help. But libraries have grown into so much more. 

For instance, in recent years, libraries have become a source for internet access for people who would otherwise go without. Because of librarians’ role as community leaders, some are being trained to offer advice and support on a number of health and social needs. Other library systems, such as in Delaware and the San Francisco Public Library, have social workers on staff to help patrons seeking assistance. It’s no wonder that libraries are often seen as a sign of community strength and prosperity. 

But what if they could do even more? Delaware, recognizing the community benefit of neighborhood public libraries, took steps to further serve library patrons. Through a pilot program funded in part by Delaware Health and Human Services, Discover Bank, and the Delaware Community Foundation, three libraries installed telehealth kiosks where patrons can take virtual healthcare appointments. The program expects to expand state-wide by the end of the summer. 

These telehealth kiosks are just one example of healthcare programs that are moving away from centralized, traditional medical centers in order to meet people where they are. As the program shows, public places can serve as additional  access points for healthcare, broadening access to those who could not, or would not, seek out traditional medical care. 

Why set up shop in libraries? 

Odds are, people don’t expect to receive medical care at the library. But as I’ve written before with regards to vaccination sites, healthcare providers are getting creative in how they reach prospective patients. So why are library telehealth kiosks a good idea? Below, we outline three reasons why this new initiative is well-positioned to benefit library patrons.  

1. The expansion of telehealth brings care to more than just the home

The expansion of telehealth services helped spearhead the movement of healthcare out of the doctor’s office and into the home, making it far more accessible to people who, for a variety of reasons, struggle to receive in-person care. But home isn’t the only place care can be moved to. The benefit of telehealth is that care can be accessed wherever it is most convenient for the user. 

With libraries acting as a source for internet access, they might be one of the only locations where people can access telehealth services. But Delaware isn’t just using the kiosks to facilitate care; the telehealth kiosks have also been designed to help connect users to a number of community resources, such as housing support and legal advice. This reinforces the fact that telehealth can be leveraged for more than just basic healthcare—it also holds the potential to address a number of related issues. 

2. For some, libraries provide a more comforting setting than a doctor’s office 

While medical care from a library kiosk might sound like an outrageous idea to some, for others it creates a space that is far more usable, and potentially more effective, than a medical office. We’ve seen throughout COVID, particularly via the vaccine rollout, that many populations feel at least some level of distrust towards the medical field. In contrast, many americans have positive associations with libraries. If the only options for care are either in-person medical care or a telehealth kiosk in a library, those who feel nervous when interacting with the healthcare system may feel more comfortable accessing telehealth at the library.

Even if people have access to telehealth services within their own homes, the soundproof kiosks at the library could provide a modicum of privacy that their home lacks. One of the biggest hurdles for telehealth, particularly teletherapy, is the lack of privacy for patients living at home or with roommates. While libraries serve a lot of people, the telehealth kiosks are soundproof.

3. Libraries are already a one-stop shop for several community needs

It’s becoming increasingly evident that traditional medical centers aren’t always the best equipped to act as a central hub for medical and social needs, but there are other locations that might be. Libraries are unique in their ability to adapt to specific community needs based on the populations they serve. Whether it’s offering shelter after a natural disaster, or providing mobile libraries to better serve rural communities, libraries have always been a mutable resource that can change to help those who need them the most. 

The thing about public libraries is that many of their services are offered free of charge to anyone in the community. This is what makes them such a valuable resource. This is decidedly different from traditional healthcare settings, which can be exclusionary, and for some, nerve wracking. While establishing telehealth kiosks in libraries does not solve every health access issue in the country, this is a solid step in the right direction that I hope will inspire other innovative programs to look outside traditional healthcare settings. 

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.