Wikipedia’s health pages are the most viewed medical information source in the world, attracting almost 4.9 billion page views in 2013. They are widely used not only by patients, but also medical students, doctors, and other health-care providers. In low- and middle-income countries where internet access is often slow and expensive, Wikipedia is particularly critical.
In a new article in the journal Lancet Global Health, James Heilman, an emergency room physician in British Columbia and a founder of WikiProject Medicine, looks at Wikipedia’s role as a global medical resource. We spoke with him to find out more. His co-authors Gwinyai Masukume, Thomas M A Shafee, Michaël Laurent, Diptanshu Das and Lisa Kipersztok also contributed to the answers.
ResearchGate: What role does Wikipedia play for people seeking medical information in developing countries?
James Heilman: Wikipedia is easily accessible and often acts as a starting point for people all over the world. This includes people in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) and applies to medical information as well as other topic areas.
RG: Why does Wikipedia play this role? Should Wikipedia be a source for medical information?
Heilman: Wikipedia is free and available in an offline format. It often provides a summary of the condition in relatively easy to understand language, is free of advertising, does not require registration, is often available in a language of one’s choosing, and may even be free of data charges. For all these reasons, people often turn to Wikipedia. Many people have poor or no access to other sources of medical information.
RG: The article calls attention to stillbirths. What misinformation does Wikipedia give on stillbirths? Why is this dangerous?
Heilman: With respect to stillbirths, it was less that there was incorrect information and more that information was missing. While Wikipedia is much better than nothing, and often the best existing source in many languages, there is still a great deal of work to do to bring it to a consistently professional standard.
RG: Have you found any other medical conditions that have false information? Why is this the case?
Heilman: Much of Wikipedia’s limitation is that details are missing rather than wrong. We also struggle with keeping language at a level which is understandable by the general population. With respect to the core community of authors, about half are medical professionals and many of the others are in health care related research fields.
Thomas Shafee: The main problem is inconsistency. Dengue Fever is in the top 0.1% of all Wikipedia articles, but African Tick Bite Fever is currently only 60 words long. The active community varies over time; however, there are about 880 current active editors and they write, update and maintain 29,000 medical articles on the English Wikipedia. Among those 880 editors, less than 100 do most of the work. The biggest source of error is missing or out of date information. Newly discovered side effects are missing from some drug articles, for example.
Heilman and Diptanshu Das: False information is fairly uncommon but does occur, like in any other source. But there are a host of editors who check the information for facts. Moreover, Wikipedia is a dynamic platform that anyone can edit, and Wikipedia has a large reader base. So, even if some errors inadvertently get into the articles, they do not remain unseen for long and get eliminated relatively soon. People do need to use common sense. Sometimes information can be wrong because ideas become outdated with newer evidence.
RG: Do you think it is better to have no information than misinformation?
Heilman: Wikipedia appears to be the single most used medical resource globally. We see this massive number of users because Wikipedia is generally correct. In our opinion it is better to have a generally correct and incomplete source of medical information than no information at all. And medicine, like science, is not complete. Therefore, Wikipedia will always need to develop as long as the underlying research and practice are changing.
RG: What role should medical professionals play in keeping Wikipedia up-to-date? How can we encourage this?
Heilman: Medical professionals do currently write and review changes to Wikipedia. We need the number of professionals doing this work to expand, as Wikipedia has nearly 200,000 medical articles across more than 275 languages. Our hope is that working on Wikipedia will one day garner greater academic recognition, so this work could be recognized when professors apply for tenure or students apply for residency. More collaboration between Wikipedia and established publishers could also be useful.
Shafee: To encourage expert contribution, Wikipedia needs to be moved up the priority list of busy professionals. This means emphasizing the importance of Wikipedia to their own careers and public health, as well as how easy it is to contribute with support from Wikipedia’s editing tools and the community.
RG: What are the main challenges in improving Wikipedia as a medical resource?
Das: The current community of long-term medical editors is small and spread out unevenly across the world. An organized, scientific and encyclopedic approach seems difficult to achieve. However, this is already happening. At WikiJournal of Medicine, biomedical editors from five continents are coordinating among themselves and striving to draw the academic community towards Wikipedia. This is a new platform to publish articles without paying any charges, and the content gets publicly peer reviewed for quality and accuracy before being published. The published articles are all open access and the information can be directly integrated into Wikipedia.