LIBRARY INSIDER: Surviving an infodemic


The term infodemic (a portmanteau of “information” and “epidemic”) was coined by David Rothkopf in a Washington Post column during the 2003 SARS outbreak to refer to the way that facts “mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor” can be quickly spread and distorted by modern communication technologies. Now — 18 years later and almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic — the term is more apt than ever as we are inundated with health information.

It can be complicated and confusing to navigate everything we hear and read, especially when some of it is completely false. While misinformation is incorrect information spread without ill intent (and without necessarily knowing the information is wrong), disinformation is incorrect information spread with the intent to deceive. Both misinformation and disinformation contribute to the creation and continuation of an infodemic.

Health literacy is one way to combat the infodemic. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People initiative defines health literacy as follows:

Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Low personal health literacy is associated with adverse health outcomes. Sufficient personal health literacy allows an individual to make informed decisions about their own health and the health of their families, but organizational health literacy is just as important. Health literate organizations can help to mitigate the negative impacts of low health literacy on the personal level while also improving the health literacy of communities.

The World Health Organization is one group that has been working to help people through our current infodemic. Another place concerned with organizational health literacy? Your library! Libraries connect people to both consumer and academic health resources, from patients looking to better communicate with their health care providers, to medical professionals looking for the latest research.

For academic biomedical information, sign up for a PubMed class at the Health Sciences Library System, or take a look at our e-journals and databases. Find additional information via our library guides. Or, sign up to help us edit Wikipedia and improve the quality of a free source of information that millions of people access daily. For consumer health questions, you can visit MedlinePlus, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, or the Medical Library Association’s list of consumer health websites.

While we are all navigating the current infodemic, libraries can help us find and evaluate sources and discern fact from fiction to improve our own health literacy.

Rebekah Miller and Rachel Suppok are research and instruction librarians in the Health Sciences Library System.