KENNEBUNK — Hug a medical librarian – if you can find one. If you were indeed a fortunate patient during your last trip to a clinic or hospital, your visit was positively affected by this increasingly rare, unsung professional working in our country’s most progressive health care institutions.

Medical librarians (or “health sciences librarians,” to more fully capture the interdisciplinary nature of modern medicine) are uniquely trained reference librarians who specialize in the research and dissemination of medical and health information. In teaching and nonteaching hospitals, their users include physicians, nurses, pharmacists, allied health professionals, students and patients.

Health sciences librarians can also be found in outpatient clinics, university and college libraries, health care and biotechnology centers, and state and local government agencies. Importantly, all are trained to assess the credibility of electronic and print information sources and to process and deliver that information appropriately – whether it’s for specialized surgical rounds or for a layperson’s outpatient handout.

Health sciences librarians can perform literature searches using countless references in all formats that include the latest evidence-based sources, including peer-reviewed print and online journals, electronic databases, textbooks, monographs, clinical trial reports, statistical reviews and authoritative websites, as well as enduring historic literature. Essentially, they know where to search, how to search, how to winnow and how to deliver this material.

Consequently, hospital-based health sciences librarians play a crucial role in the delivery of patient care. Their work supports clinicians by keeping them informed of the latest evidence-based findings and treatments for specific conditions and circumstances.

As you can imagine, health care providers can rely heavily on health sciences librarians. Providers nowadays have little time to conduct systematic and meticulous information searches, and, truthfully, they often do not have the skills to do such searches.

They do not have the knowledge of the scope of available resources – and yes, many providers are still uncomfortable with technology or do not know how to use computers. Notably, not all have access to desk or laptop computers or mobile devices where they work. In many settings, if computers are available, they are shared, and their availability is fleeting.

Many health sciences librarians are found on patient floors and accompany doctors and nurses on bedside rounds and ward meetings. Others work in medical or research units. These “embedded librarians” are immediately available to field questions and collaborate with clinicians or researchers.

Health sciences librarians provide article alerts for patrons of all disciplines. They help clinicians and students prepare presentations. They support clinical teaching and lend research support for the development of practice guidelines. They ensure that the most current medical literature is available in a variety of formats in their library collections.

Professionals who choose to do their own research come to health sciences librarians to learn how to evaluate online references. Librarians promote and teach skills for evaluating websites to all manner of clinicians, often on an individual basis.

Source assessment, coupled with advanced internet searching skills, results in getting relevant information fast. Honing these skills increases confidence and subject-matter knowledge. The end result: highly educated clinicians and improved patient care!

Institutions with health sciences libraries usually support these same services for patients, family members and medically curious patrons from their communities. Credible, understandable health education is the core of a health sciences librarian’s existence, and community outreach programs are common.

The bad news is that in their never-ending quest to trim costs, hospitals throughout the U.S. are eliminating health sciences librarians and access to credible professional resources, believing, as many do, that “everything is on the internet.”

Beware: Free information is on the internet. But as only one example of hundreds of professional medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine won’t provide proprietary information for nothing. A subscription costs well over $1,000. You won’t get much for free from NEJM. And biased and downright dangerous sites abound in .com-land.

Ask your health care professional if their affiliated hospital employs a health science librarian and if he or she uses their services. Seek ones that do. The quality of your health care depends on it.