Can Wikipedia Ever Be a Definitive Medical Text?

How to create a credible, accessible, crowd-sourced resource for health information

Every time I panic unreasonably over some minor bodily abnormality—which is often—I take to the Internet. I’m far from the only one—72 percent of Internet users have looked online for health information in the past year, according to Pew Research. And though as a responsible health editor, I should of course say that if you really think something’s wrong, you should go to the doctor, I know that even if you do go to the doctor, chances are you’ll Google whatever she tells you anyway.

Wikipedia being the sixth-largest site on the whole wide Internet, these people searching for medical information online are often going to end up there. Whether or not they should be doing it, they are. I am. Patients are, and so are doctors. Which is why efforts to improve the quality of Wikipedia’s medical information are important—if you can’t lead people away from the fountain of crowd-sourced knowledge, you can at least try to unmuddy the waters.

A new study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association says the waters are still pretty muddy. The researchers looked at the Wikipedia pages for the 10 most costly medical conditions (in terms of public and private expenditures) and compared them with peer-reviewed sources, finding them wanting.

“Most Wikipedia articles representing the 10 most costly medical conditions in the United States contain many errors when checked against standard peer-reviewed sources,” the study reads. Unfortunately, the question of Wikipedia’s accuracy is a little more complicated than that.

“The story started a couple years ago,” says study lead author Dr. Robert Hasty, an osteopathic physician and an associate dean at the Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine. “We were sitting in an educational session with the residents and I saw one of them using Wikipedia to look up information. I said: ‘Is there any evidence that’s a good resource?’”

There is, some. A study published in Nature in 2005 found that Wikipedia was about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, after experts on 42 different subjects reviewed articles from each source. But, when you consider the broad scope of Wikipedia, 42 is a pretty small sample size. And there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the study’s accuracy, with Encyclopedia Britannica responding that “everything about the journal’s investigation…was wrong and misleading,” and Nature responding to the response saying, “We reject those accusations, and are confident our comparison was fair.”

Looking specifically at medical information, research published in BMJ found that many peer-reviewed health science studies themselves cite Wikipedia as a reference. Studies on specific areas of medicine have come down on different sides of the debate: One says that Wikipedia is “appropriate for use by nursing students,” another says the “depth of discussion” is not sufficient for it to be a “reliable source of information for medical students searching for gastroenterology and hepatology articles.” Good for information about kidneys and mental disorders, not great for ear, nose, and throat conditions in children.

None of that really helps answer the question “Is Wikipedia a good resource?” and, though this new study attempts to generalize broadly on the quality of medical information, it doesn’t really answer that question either. The “many errors” the study says it found is a vague measure, and Hasty tells me that “a lot of the [errors] I saw were small little details. We didn’t power the study to look at what’s important.”

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

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