How doctors are working to improve Wikipedia's accuracy

Ensuring the site's medical accuracy can help millions of people, one physician says

Some medical professionals are working diligently to give millions of people access to accurate health information—by editing Wikipedia, Lesley McClurg and Jon Brooks write for KQED's "Future of You."

James Heilman, an ED physician in British Columbia, spends 60 hours a week editing health-related articles on Wikipedia. His project started 10 years ago when he was browsing a medical article on the site: "I thought, 'Oh, my God this is really bad,'" he said. "And then I saw the edit button, and I realized, 'Oh, my God, I could fix the internet!' I sort of got madly hooked."

WikiProject Medicine faces 'daunting' task

Heilman went on to start the WikiProject Medicine group, which has 320 like-minded editors combing through Wikipedia's health content to ensure accuracy. About half of the group's members are medical professionals, Heilman estimates.

The task is "daunting," McClurg and Brooks report. A 2014 study identified about 25,000 health-related articles on Wikipedia, a number that Heilman says has since grown to about 32,000. Further, data show that Wikipedia's health pages drew 4.9 billion views in 2013, while a 2012 survey found that 94 percent of medical students have used the website for health information.

And studies are mixed on just how accurate those articles are. For instance, a 2014 study in The Journal of American Osteopathic Association found that many Wikipedia health articles made assertions that were not fully supported by peer-reviewed academic journals. In contrast, multiple other studies found that Wikipedia pages related to nephrology, depression, and schizophrenia tended to provide better information. 

Study: 90 percent of health-related Wikipedia pages contain errors

While Heilman has expressed reservations about the 2014 study, he doesn't dispute that there's "a lot of work to do" improving the content of health-related articles on Wikipedia. For instance, he noted that only 63 health articles have received the highest grade from Wikipedia editors, qualifying them as "featured articles" on the website's front page. And only 200 health articles have met the website's next-best level.

Heilman is proud of the progress he and his group have made. For instance, the entry for Dengue Fever was published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal Open Medicine.

Heilman's group also is collaborating with Translators Without Borders to provide accurate Wikipedia health content in as many languages as possible. According to McClurg and Brooks, that project includes Odia, a language spoken by several million people in India and is not available via Google Translate.

WikiProject Medicine also is working with the federal government. NIH is creating an online biomedical dictionary for PubMed Health, and while NIH typically uses its own materials to generate the definitions, it will occasionally rely on Wikipedia. According to McClurg and Brooks, NIH flags any erroneous content on the website for Heilman's group.

WikiProject is one of several similar initiatives

Heilman's project isn't the only endeavor aimed at improving Wikipedia, McClurg and Brooks write. For instance, several hundred students in the United States and Canada are working to edit the website via the Wiki Education Foundation. The foundation encourages universities to assign such editorial work in lieu of more traditional assignments, like a brief biography.

According to McClurg and Brooks, pharmacology students at the University of California, San Francisco, are editing Wikipedia articles on popular drugs, while students studying voice disorders at McGill University are correcting, clarifying, and fleshing out articles on laryngitis. The Wiki Education Fund's LiAnna Davis said that in 2016, 280 science classes at U.S. and Canadian universities have added information to 3,650 articles and created an additional 300 new entries garnering more than 102 million views.

UC-San Francisco to offer credit to med students who edit Wikipedia

Heilman is working on getting more clinicians involved in his project. "As a physician I believe all people deserve access to quality health care information," he said. Heilman explained that as a physician he can only treat one patient at a time, "but as a Wikipedian, I can make a difference in millions and millions of people's lives."

An important mission

Several experts agree improving Wikipedia is important work. In a recent editorial in The Conversation, Thomas Shafee, a biochemist at La Trobe University in Australia, argued medical professionals have an ethical responsibility to ensure the accuracy of information on the website, given Wikipedia's outsized role in informing the public.

"Health professionals have a duty to improve the accuracy of medical entries in Wikipedia, because it's the first port of call for people all over the world seeking medical information," he wrote. "The accuracy of the site is vital, because every medical entry ... has the potential for immediate real-world health consequences."

Finding reliable health information online

When it comes to searching for reliable health information online, Amin Azzam, a psychiatrist at UCSF, recommended that people first check out government sites, such as NIH, CDC, and the National Library of Medicine. Most of them, Azzam explained, "have information targeting 'lay' people." Azzam also directs patients to websites created by national advocacy groups for particular illnesses and conditions, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

And if people choose to use Wikipedia, Azzam recommended they check the "Talk" button at the top of each page. The button allows users to see how Wikipedia editors have ranked the page on thoroughness and accuracy. Further, he advised people to check references at the end of each Wikipedia article, which he says "gives me some idea of how much to trust the content." Azzam also suggested that people compare information against multiple other sources—a recommendation seconded by Heilman (McClurg/Brooks, "Future of You," KQED, 11/3). 

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