Doctors’ #1 Source for Healthcare Information: Wikipedia

Fifty percent of physicians look up conditions on the site, and some are editing articles themselves to improve the quality of available information.

In spite of all of our teachers' and bosses' warnings that it's not a trustworthy source of information, we all rely on Wikipedia. Not only when we can’t remember the name of that guy from that movie, which is a fairly low-risk use, but also when we find a weird rash or are just feeling a little off and we’re not sure why. One in three Americans have tried to diagnose a medical condition with the help of the Internet, and a new report says doctors are just as drawn to Wikipedia’s flickering flame.

According to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics’ “Engaging patients through social media” report, Wikipedia is the top source of healthcare information for both doctors and patients. Fifty percent of physicians use Wikipedia for information, especially for specific conditions.

Generally, more people turn to Wikipedia for rare diseases than common conditions. The top five conditions looked up on the site over the past year were: tuberculosis, Crohn’s disease, pneumonia, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes. Patients tend to use Wikipedia as a “starting point for their online self education,” the report says. It also found a “direct correlation between Wikipedia page visits and prescription volumes.”

We already knew that more and more people were turning to the Internet in general and Wikipedia specifically for health information, and we could hardly stop them if we tried.

“Wikipedia entries often appear highest in the results pages of various search engines and the public perception of Wikipedia being a legitimate source of information has increased dramatically in recent years,” the report reads. “For healthcare in particular, patients are concerned about the validity and neutrality of the information they seek out, and Wikipedia increasingly meets this need, providing supplemental information to that which they receive from clinicians.”

Being crowd-sourced, the information may well be neutral, but is it accurate? Knowing that doctors, too, are using these resources raises old concerns about the quality of information that comes up when you type your condition into Google.

But doctors are aware of this, and an effort called Wikiproject Medicine is dedicated to improving the quality of medical information on Wikipedia. The IMS report looked at changes to five articles—diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer and prostate cancer—and found them to be in a state of constant flux. Those articles were changed, on average, between 16 and 46 times a month. But one of the major contributors to those articles was Dr. James Heilman, the founder of Wikiproject Medicine’s Medicine Translation task force.

“This task force’s goal is getting 200 medical articles to a good or featured status (only 0.1 percent of articles on Wikipedia have this status), simplifying the English and then translating this content to as many languages as possible,” the report says. “The aim is to improve the quality of the most read medical articles on Wikipedia and ensure that this quality will reach non-English speakers.”

A class offered at the University of California, San Francisco last fall also had medical students editing Wikipedia for class credit. I spoke with Dr. Amin Azzam, the professor teaching the course, in October, about the importance of getting doctors to put their medical knowledge online.

“I do feel we have a moral obligation, as members of the profession to be reaching out to the people we intend to serve, where they are—and they are on the Internet,” he told me. And now it seems that not only doctors’ patients are finding medical information online—so are their colleagues.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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