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.

The 'Wikipedia' logo is seen on a tablet screen on December 4, 2012 in Paris.
National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Feb. 20, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

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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