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Developing health information literacy in disengaged at-risk populations: Insights to inform interventions

Steven Buchanan (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)
Emma Nicol (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 15 November 2018

Issue publication date: 7 January 2019




The purpose of this paper is to advance our understanding of the challenges of health information literacy (IL) education in disadvantaged and disengaged at-risk populations; and from the perspective of professionals out with information professions occupying everyday support roles.


A qualitative in-depth case study. The participants were a team of UK Family Nurses providing outreach support to young expectant mothers from areas of multiple deprivations, and the mothers themselves. The data collection methods were observation, survey, interviews and focus groups.


Information needs of mothers are multiple, and not always recognised as information problems, or revealed. Several felt overwhelmed, and actively avoided health information. There is low awareness and/or use of state sources of online health information. Family nurses provide an important information intermediary role, but are unfamiliar with IL concepts and models; consequently, there is limited evidence of client transitions to independent information seeking, or underpinning pedagogical practices to achieve such goals.

Research limitations/implications

Further research is required into appropriate pedagogical approaches to IL education adaptable to semi-structured everyday situations. Recognition of information need requires particular attention, including methods of elicitation and specification in the problematic context.

Practical implications

In an era of digital transitions and public service reforms, the authors raise important questions regarding the true reach of public health policy.


The paper holistically examines nurse–client information behaviours, and extends the discussion of low IL in nurses beyond issues of evidence-based practice to issues of developing healthcare self-efficacy in at-risk clients.



This research was funded by ESRC Grant No. ES/L012634/1: understanding the Information Needs of Young First Time Mothers from Areas of Multiple Deprivation.


Buchanan, S. and Nicol, E. (2019), "Developing health information literacy in disengaged at-risk populations: Insights to inform interventions", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 75 No. 1, pp. 172-189.



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