In the early months of 2020, WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus underlined that in addition to fighting a pandemic, the world also needed to reckon with an ‘infodemic’. The past two years have seen a greater need than ever for reliable health information, but also a greater vulnerability than ever to the harm of misinformation.

Libraries have a unique role to play in the solution, but so to do governments. Indeed, as argued by the speakers at the WLIC 2021 session on Access to health information as a human right: A global call to action and practical steps, there is an urgent need for action to ensure that every person should have access to  reliable health information and should be protected from misinformation.

As the moderator, Anne Brice of the UK Health Security Agency underlined, the challenge now is to bring all stakeholders together to define priorities and goals. To start the discussion, each of the speakers shared their viewpoints about where to start.

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, coordinator of Healthcare Information For All (HIFA) stressed the tragedy of lives lost due to sub-standard care or situations that could have been avoided through better access and use of reliable healthcare information, whether by the general public, health workers or policymakers.

The internet has made it easier for many to access reliable health information, but it has also fuelled  rampant mis- and disinformation. He asked where the global action plan for universal access to reliable healthcare information is, and argued that libraries are uniquely placed to make this happen.

Margaret Zimmerman, Associate Professor at Florida State University argued that the necessary legal preconditions are already in place, with the rights to access to information, health and science leading directly to a right of access to health information.

In order words, whenever governments undermine evidence-based medical advice or promote pseudo-science, this represents a violation of rights; no-one should enjoy less access than others because of their citizenship.  This needs to be called out and action taken.

Ola El Zain, Head of the Medical Library in the American University in Beirut focused on practical ways for LIS professionals to promote access to reliable healthcare information and protect people from misinformation. .

LIS professionals can help curate reliable information, improve access, and also build health literacy to their users. But their role goes beyond the library and into wider society, where they can for partnerships with other stakeholders to find solutions at national and global levels.

Finally, Blessing Mawire, Director of Integra Professional Solutions, stressed the need for investment in building skills and capabilities of LIS professionals. Increased focus on building health information literacy more broadly provided an unmissable opportunity to do this.

Key to this would be an assessment of the skills needed, from learning how to make complex information understandable, to working with people with hostile opinions, and those with low literacy. Librarians would also need to become stronger advocates. “We need to be part of the agenda, at institutional, national and global levels.”

In her closing words, the moderator looked forward to further discussion with the library community. What can we do individually and collectively to accelerate progress towards universal access to reliable healthcare information? How can we take this forward, not only to be part of discussions, but also to convene and facilitate all stakeholder groups beyond LIS professionals.

Watch the session again on IFLA’s YouTube channel!