Finding answers in a beauty shop

By THOMAS CONUEL

National Library of Medicine In Focus writer

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — The sign in front of MaFlo’s Beauty Salon in Georgetown, South Carolina, population 8,441, reads: “MaFlo’s Hairstyles & Designs by Marilynn — Health Awareness Team”

Inside are three chairs for hair drying, two for styling, and portraits of clients lining the walls. A waiting area offers several comfortable chairs, three computers and a printer.

On a typical day, the beauty chairs are filled and several people can be found at the computers. They are reading health information on MedlinePlus, the consumer health website of the National Library of Medicine (www.medlineplus.gov).

“People sit around talking at a hair salon,” says the salon’s owner, Marilynn Lance-Robb. “They’ll tell me they’ve been diagnosed with something, maybe diabetes. And we’ll look it up.”

Strange combination

Finding health information in a hair salon may seem an odd combination, but it makes perfect sense to Lance-Robb. She teaches health and computer classes at the local library on her days off. Her computers are part of an innovative program to bring health information to underserved people. Funding comes from the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Southeastern/Atlantic Region.

The National Library of Medicine coordinates the network, which provides access to health information for healthcare providers and the public, wherever they may live or work.

“We try to go where the people are,” says Nancy Patterson, SE/A community outreach coordinator. “It’s great if they can get to a library or computer center. Some do. But we also go to their places of worship, public and senior housing, neighborhood centers and in Marilynn’s case, a beauty salon.”

Whenever she begins a new program, Patterson first asks, “Where do people here spend time? How do they connect with one another? And how can I best help them?”

Spreading the effort

Patterson relies on a “train-the-trainer” approach. She looks for reliable, creative people who are passionate about helping others find health information. She provides the materials and training they need. This helps her spread her efforts around her region, which spans 13 states. It supports more than 1,000 libraries and information centers like MaFlo’s.

In 2006, Lance-Robb met Barbara Carlson, a health sciences librarian at the Medical University of South Carolina. Carlson was coordinator of diabetes/library outreach services for Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) 2010.

Award

They and others helped the Charleston and Georgetown Diabetes Coalition Library Partnership win a prestigious award. The award, from the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, was the 2006 National Health Information Award for excellence in consumer health information.

The win spurred Lance-Robb to think of other ways to help her hometown. Georgetown is South Carolina’s third-oldest settlement. It shares the health concerns of many small communities: diabetes, kidney failure, hypertension, obesity and heart disease.

From Carlson, Lance-Robb learned of the NN/LM SE/A program and applied for funding. She proposed to make her salon a base for community health information and Internet access. She would also teach computer basics classes at the local community center.

Lance-Robb named her salon in honor of her mother, Florine. “We used to call her Flo Jo. So I took ‘Mama,’ put the two together and came up with ‘MaFlo’s',” Lance-Robb says. Her memories of her parents still fuel her commitment to helping others. “I love what I do, and I love helping people find health information.”

(Thomas Conuel is a National Library of Medicine In Focus writer.)

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