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The changing role of medical librarians in a COVID-19 world

“Health librarians really need to have a broad picture of the health environment to have an impact and connect all the dots,” says Gemma Siemensma, Library Manager at Ballarat Health Services (BHS), Australia. Librarians “need to continue to excel in reference consultations and literature searching to advanced forms of evidence synthesis and critical appraisal,” she adds.

Gemma Siemensma, Library Manager at BHS

It’s evident that the role of medical libraries and librarians has changed considerably since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The degree to which this has happened is discussed by Siemensma with Rolf Schafer and Elle Matthews, Library Manager and E-services Librarian, respectively, from St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney.

A typical work day from 8:30am-5pm, Monday to Friday, as in the case of the BHS Library, is no longer the reality. “Our library has been on a rollercoaster ride”, says Siemensma. BHS “were told to close pretty early on and staff moved to working from home. COVID-19 numbers in Australia eased and we reopened briefly for a few weeks with one staff member being onsite whilst others continued to work from home. We then closed again as the second wave of COVID-19 hit Australia. We are now open again with reduced hours and staff doing a mixture of working onsite and from home”. By contrast, the library staff at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney weren’t permitted to work from home due to limitations on the availability of remote access tokens to IT systems and were therefore directed to maintain on-site services to support clinicians and researchers. Additionally, Schafer and Matthews were successfully redeployed to the Emergency Department (ED) and to the Health Information Services (Medical Records), respectively, after “a request for redeployment of non-clinical staff was issued in March 2020 by the Hospital Administration to increase the workforce during the lockdown and support the anticipated surge in COVID-infected patients.”

Elle Matthews, E-services Librarian at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney

Suddenly, medical librarians were faced with new responsibilities to support hospitals. During his four-week redeployment, Schafer set up a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) safety and compliance audit and audited clinicians in the ED, whereas Matthews’ new responsibilities ranged from running daily reports and data entry of patient details from the COVID-19 pop up testing clinics into the Patient Administration System to contacting patients on a daily basis to verify their identity in order to merge patients’ electronic medical records. Matthews’ redeployment was for an initial period of three months but was later extended to seven months.

Librarians at BHS were also confronted with new responsibilities. Siemensma points out that one of the most exciting roles played during the pandemic was that a Senior Librarian from BHS Library was involved in a local project which included a Therapeutic Goods Administration submission for a locally made ventilator. One of the librarian’s responsibilities was the development of a systematic search strategy for a literature review to support the application, which has subsequently been approved and the company can now make low cost ventilators.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the reading and research habits of medical staff have changed dramatically. “At the outset of the pandemic, many nursing staff were required to upskill and increase their knowledge of managing acutely ill patients, often on mechanical ventilation. The Library developed an electronic reading list of references to support over 100 nurses undertaking the online Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and High Dependency Nursing courses funded by the Australian Government Department of Health. References to books and journal articles were accessible via a hypertext link from a reading list located on the Library homepage. Another initiative of the Library was to compile and maintain a list of recent publications on COVID-19 co-authored by hospital staff. Library staff monitored publication output in the international literature and created an Endnote library with citation details. A link to this bibliography was provided on the Library homepage and promoted via the Hospital’s Daily Bulletin,” says Schafer, adding that online access of the Library resources has increased significantly. The number of visits to the Library home page has gone up by 592.76% year on year, and successful requests for full-text has increased by over 90% this year compared to last year. Likewise, in the BHS Library, services such as literature searches increased, particularly around COVID-19 requested information.

Rolf Schafer, Library Manager at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney

As the coronavirus pandemic hit, many publishers began curating free content collections to support medical professionals. Opening up COVID-19 research and specific resources (such as infection control) by publishers allowed the BHS Library access content that may have been previously inaccessible. Siemensma mentions that in order to disseminate the available open research related to the virus, the library set up a COVID-19 resources page on their website. This curated information included guidelines, statistics, evidence summaries, research article and literature searches.

Similarly, the library at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney “set up a dedicated widget on our homepage providing links to various COVID-19 resources for the convenience of staff.” Schafer also points out that whilst in the ED, he arranged access to Lippincott Procedures Australia, including the Rapid On-boarding module for COVID-19, and promoted it widely throughout the hospital.

The coronavirus pandemic “has highlighted the importance of access to the evidence base. Conversely it has also highlighted the misinformation that is rampant globally. For me this demonstrates the importance of health libraries and the challenging and rewarding job we get to do day in and day out as an organisation’s only dedicated, secure, permanent, and trustworthy source of authoritative information”, says Siemensma when asked about a lesson from this year. Asked the same question, Schafer highlights that adaptability and being prepared for a whole new way of working is key. “Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone—you may surprise yourself how well you handle the new role and the various challenges that come along your way,” he concludes.

Gemma Siemensma, Rolf Schafer, and Elle Matthews provided an invaluable insight into the changing role of medical librarians in a COVID-19 world. It cannot be denied that, as Siemensma says, libraries are still in a state of flux with restrictions placed on hospitals. And this may be the case for a while. We are yet to see whether medical librarians and libraries will ever go back to their pre-COVID role, or whether there is a complete “new normal” around the corner for them too.

Feature image by Mika Baumeister. Photos used with permission.

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