Know Your Library, Know Your Numbers!

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I might have fallen into health librarianship by accident rather than design, but I love the fact that no two days are the same. In addition, every day’s a school day, as the saying goes. Every day I learn something new — about health conditions, about all the great research going on in science and medicine around the world, and about how the human body works.

And one of the most unexpected but rewarding learning points, for me, has been finding out about the most common health conditions we experience as humans, not just in the UK, but around the world.

There’s plenty of academic research out there that shows that hypertension, or high blood pressure, consistently appears in lists of the top five health conditions encountered by family practitioners in particular.

In the UK alone, around 6 million people have high blood pressure. It’s estimated that there are around 50,000 people in the county of Somerset, England with hypertension who might not know that’s the case.

You might not think of high blood pressure in connection with libraries, but during September, some libraries in Somerset, England will be taking part in activities to help the public find out more about the effects of this condition. High blood pressure is the focus of the annual national public health campaign, Know Your Numbers! This year, the campaign runs from 5 September 2022 to 11 September 2022, and all kinds of activities are planned around the UK.

Several of the public libraries in Somerset, including the two largest in county town Taunton as well as the town of Yeovil already have “Freds.” These free full-size walk-in blood pressure monitoring machines allow library visitors to check their blood pressure levels whenever the libraries are open. Health coaches are also on hand in Taunton every morning from Monday to Friday — so if a library user takes their blood pressure and would like advice on lifestyle changes to help develop or maintain a healthy lifestyle, they can get advice from a health professional there and then.

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As a very rural county, Somerset also has many smaller libraries out in the villages and towards parts of the coast. Some of these have portable blood pressure monitors available for users to borrow free of charge.

Borrowers can take these smaller machines home to try out in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. The portable blood pressure monitors can be borrowed for two weeks. The kits come with an information leaflet showing how to check your own blood pressure.

There are over two hundred devices available, and even before the campaign has officially started, over 60 of them are on loan.

If those borrowers then find out their blood pressure is high, they have the information they need to visit their GP or health professional to find out what the best intervention is for them. Solutions might include a change in lifestyle or appropriate medication.

High blood pressure quite often has no visible symptoms — so the blood pressure monitors can offer reassurance, or a way to determine if further support is needed.

Blood pressure is measured in a unit called mmHg — which stands for millimetres of mercury. It’s all very well to be able to take your own blood pressure reading, of course, but you need to be able to know what it means. And that’s where the Know Your Numbers! campaign comes in.

There are two numbers in a blood pressure reading, and they’re usually written like this: 120/80mmHg (which is an ideal blood pressure, by the way). You’d say it out loud as 120 over 80.

That first, or top, number is your systolic reading, and the second, or bottom one, is your diastolic reading. When your heart beats, it forces your blood around your body; this is the systolic aspect of the reading. In between beats, your heart relaxes, and this is the diastolic part of the reading — the lowest level reached by your blood pressure.

Like so many aspects of our human physiology, blood pressure doesn’t stay static — and finding out what you need to do next depends on the reading. For the Know Your Numbers! campaign, a helpful chart is available.

If you’re wondering why high blood pressure is such an issue, it’s because it’s often a factor in, or a sign of, serious conditions — it can act as an early warning system for heart attack or stroke, helping to stop those situations from happening in the first place.

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High blood pressure is generally regarded as more of an issue than low blood pressure, but low blood pressure might lead to dizzy spells or feeling faint. (Low blood pressure is usually regarded as lower than 90 over 60 mmHg.)

It’s also important to keep track of how your blood pressure changes over a time period — this will help identify whether your reading is consistent or just a one-off. This is one of the reasons the portable blood pressure monitors can be borrowed for two weeks at a time.

Both NHS and public libraries in Somerset are regularly involved with public health information campaigns. In the NHS, we mainly encounter clinical and other hospital Trust staff and students on placement. Still, increasingly health libraries around the UK are also involved with information for patients and the general public, often working in partnership across sectors. And while some people might be shy or worried about visiting their general practitioner or a healthcare professional, they don’t see the library as frightening or threatening — quite the opposite, they’re often described as safe and trusted places.

Blood pressure monitors aren’t the only healthcare-related items available for loan in Somerset — there are plenty of other gadgets on offer as well, besides the ongoing iPad loan scheme. The aim is to help to reduce some of the health inequalities that exist even in such a green and lush part of the country.