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Health Care

Wikipedia Is a Massively Popular (Yet Untested) Doctor

Nearly three-fourths of Internet users look up health information online. Wikipedia wants to make sure they're not misled.

(Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Clara Ritger
February 20, 2014

Wikipedia says that fewer than 1 percent of its medical articles have been peer-reviewed, but that doesn't stop the pages from grabbing more than 180 million views per month.

Now the website is working to change that.

Enter the WikiProject Med Foundation—a nonprofit group working to develop free medical content on Wikipedia—and WikiProject Medicine, a discussion forum for people interested in health and science.


Wikipedia is curated on a volunteer-only basis and has a tiny budget relative to its size, so the website won't be hiring doctors and other medical experts to rewrite its articles. Instead, the partnerships are working to provide the volunteers who edit the site access to professional-level medical information.

In an effort to expand global access to accurate medical information, the projects are collaborating with third-party experts including the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, Translators Without Borders, the University of San Francisco College of Medicine, and medical journals such as Open Medicine and the Journal of Internet Medical Research.

Their most recent partnership is with the Cochrane Collaboration, an independent, nonprofit, global health care research network. Cochrane works with health practitioners, researchers, and patient advocates to produce treatment and policy reviews based on new and existing research and studies. As a result of the partnership, Wikipedia editors have 100 free accounts to Cochrane's online library collection to use in verifying content accuracy.

Online health information accuracy is an important priority, given the high number of patients and doctors who rely on the content. Roughly 85 percent of U.S. adults use the Internet, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of whom look for health information online.

Wikipedia is the most-used online medical resource, according to a January report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, and is the single leading source of information for both patients and health care professionals. In its report, IMS added that patient and provider trust is one of the benefits of Wikipedia as a source of medical information, but that its vulnerability to mistakes and author bias "has caused concern within the academic and medical community."

Wikipedia editor James Heilman, an emergency doctor who also serves as president of the WikiProject Med Foundation, estimates there are 50-100 active medical-related page editors each month, roughly half of whom have a professional background in medicine. Some 1,000-2,000 edits are made to medical content each day.

Heilman said the new relationship with Cochrane is important because it produces quality content and source material to populate Wikipedia's medical pages.

"The way Wikipedia works," Heilman wrote in an email, "is that all content is to stand entirely on the references that are listed. If the best quality sources are used to write Wikipedia there's a good chance that Wikipedia will contain the best quality information."


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