Sadaf Ullah and Talin Boghosian

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Sadaf Ullah and Talin Boghosian may not physically administer medical diagnoses and treatment – but their undercover detective work contributes to the quality health care patients receive at Unity Health Toronto.

While the job title of information specialist is rather vague, these investigators act as a lighthouse for information – guiding medical professionals towards evidence-based information to conduct research and determine best practices.

Their thorough examinations also contribute to the decision-making and treatment plans that support a positive care experience for patients.

“By providing access to reliable evidence based research, we hope to enable healthcare professionals in making informed decisions about patient treatment and care plans which would hopefully lead to improved patient outcomes and enhanced treatment,” says Boghosian.

While the role itself is not new at Unity Health, it has garnered a positive reputation for its benefits within the field of medicine over the previous decade. Referred to as a medical or health librarian in some circles, it is a growing field in librarianship.

In a 2013 research study published by the Journal of the Medical Library Association, collaboration with an information specialist was proven to have positively contributed to informed decision making and improved patient outcomes. It found that 95 per cent of medical professionals who consulted information specialists made better informed decisions, and 79 per cent altered their original form of treatment.

The investigative process begins with a question – from clinicians, senior leadership, research teams or educators – and they can emerge from a variety of health-related concerns, such as treatment effectiveness or policy implementation.

Each specialist supports a designated portfolio: a pre-determined list of hospital departments to assist with service and resource information. While Ullah conducts research for Unity Health’s nurses, Boghosian investigates for health discipline clinicians, such as registered dieticians, physiotherapists, and speech language pathologists.

Then, an investigation occurs by examining specialized health databases, allied health journals, news stories, websites, and textbooks.

“We will do our searches, primarily on the specialized databases, to find the articles and our first step would be to send them the titles and abstract of the articles that we’re pulling up,” Boghosian says. “We don’t curate the results – we’re not actually going through the individual articles and saying “here’s the answer to your question” – they’re the subject experts.”

Ullah and Boghosian also dedicate additional time toward teaching and staff outreach. To make their services accessible, they attend unit and team meetings, while also sharing their contact information with staff and physicians.

The purpose is to inform colleagues on the research process and its benefits, including how to locate and evaluate various types of content, as well as understand diverse software systems.

This will hopefully minimize the need to utilize secondhand resources, including Wikipedia, and becomes important when assistance in the library is inaccessible.

“If there’s a nurse and she needs to find information about best practices for how to treat an elderly patient and it’s 1 a.m., she can’t email the librarian and wait around for an answer,” Ullah says. “So we empower the nurses and our clients to be able to find the best resource to search this question, and be able to determine if the information they’re finding is reliable.”

For clinicians who work tireless hours, the process of searching through extensive literature can be stress inducing and time consuming.

Along with strong communication skills and customer expertise, a foundational time-saving component information specialists employ is ‘the reference interview.’ Commonly used by librarians, this tool puts forward a series of questions to assist the client and specialist in narrowing the research process.

“When people come to you and ask you for help with something, I would say that most of the time the individual doesn’t even know what they’re really looking for,” Ullah says. “They come up to you and they’ll say “I want articles about nursing best practices for vaccines” and we think “what vaccines? What best practices?”

“Actually taking the time to talk to them, put on that customer service hat and do that little reference interview is really helpful because you end up not wasting your time and wasting their time as well.”

Zachary Osborne, Manager of the Health Information and Knowledge Mobilization Program, also believes time management is one of the crucial reasons to invest in the library and its services.

“Information specialists and library services are an invaluable resource to all hospital organizations,” Osborne says.

“[Our services] will save you time, can connect you with information you need quickly, will improve your information literacy, save the organization money, and will help get projects started on the right foot. By scanning the literature to help you know what’s already been done, you don’t recreate the wheel, waste your time, or overlook a crucial piece of evidence.”

By Shaelyn Winters. Photos by Eduardo Lima.

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