Using Wikipedia for online health information, my USA Today column

Both doctors and patients are increasingly turning to Wikipedia to look up medical information.

Using Wikipedia for online health information, my USA Today column See what I think of the phenomenon in my latest op-ed in the USA Today, Wikipedia isn’t really the patient’s friend. Here’s an excerpt:

The ability to research diseases and drugs on the web has empowered patients in managing their health. More than 160 million adults in the U.S. have gone online to look for health information. With two-thirds of them beginning their Internet health inquiry using a search engine, it is no wonder that Wikipedia has become a common medical resource for patients. More than half, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, reported that their most recent web session influenced how they took care of themselves or for someone else, illustrating how critical online medical information has become.

But Wikipedia’s medical entries – as has been reported with other entries on other issues – are not reliable for the simple fact that they are prone to manipulation, as is all Wikipedia content.

Enjoy the piece, and thanks to the USA Today for the writing opportunity.

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  • Marya

    Nice, congratulations!

  • erica holt

    It appears Wikipedia is making some attempt to increase its medical and scientific information. The foundation is going to NIH to train experts on Wikipedia use soon.

  • Finn

    I find Wikipedia useful for trivia and for looking up things that I “know” but can’t recall at the moment. I can’t imagine using a site so unreliable for looking up anything important, like health information, particularly when there are so many reliable sites run by government agencies and health care organizations.

  • Steve Parker, M.D.

    I’ve referred to Wikipedia in my blog posts, but only when I’ve read and agree with the bulk of the Wikipedia entry. I’m writing for three different blogs and often refer readers elsewhere for additional info.

    Better sources for the general public are the Mayo Clinic website, WebMD,, (owned by WebMD?), and has a medical advisory board that is supposed to review medical content.

    As always, consider the source, and verify.

  • Chris

    I recently took my mother to an appointment with a doctor who clearly was a very informed and highly skilled cardiology specialist. At one point the doctor mentioned my mother should use coumadin to cut down what is a “several percent risk” of stroke. I asked the doctor exactly what the percentage risk is, she went to Wikipedia to look up the way to determine stroke risk and that immediately decreased my confidence in the physician.

    I think of myself as someone who is online savvy and can put Wikipedia information into context. I hope this doctor is as well. But there are others, though, who see Wikipedia and think its 100 percent awful. It shouldn’t appear on any screen anywhere during an appointment.

  • Vicky

    Wikipedia is entertaining but is not an academically credible resource. All entries should include a disclaimer.

  • Wikipedia does best when the subject in question has many good and easily found sources, isn’t ambiguous or subjective, and there is no room for controversy or offense. Usually these would be hard sciences, like molecular biology articles. Go look up one of those, and it will probably be much better than any encyclopedia article.

    Wikipedia has disadvantages, but complaining alone isn’t going to solve it.

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  • Matt S.

    Holy old school Wikipedia bashing!

    Instead of making the claim that it’s an inaccurate source of health information, why not check? I mean,I think it’s dynamite currently AND it’s getting better by the minute–yes, literally by the minute. There is certainly a theoretical risk of modified content/misinformation, but that’s not to say that it’s ACTUALLY a problem. Let’s not forget the showdown between the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica and the editable-by-anyone-[GASP] Wikipedia:

    I have less respect for doctors who don’t use or don’t know how to use Wikipedia. It’s the same with PDAs–I’d feel a lot less comfortable if my physician wasn’t using one. These are the tools of the future–or at least the early iterations thereof–and any doctor who holds out betrays a certain conservatism which, I fear, probably spills over into other aspects of her/his practice.

    A lot of Wikipedia bashers are going to feel puh-retty embarrassed ten years from now.

  • Totoro

    Essentially, you blame Wikipedia for not providing exhaustive adverse effect and dose information for prescription drugs.

    First, as a physician, you know that prescription drugs are by definition prescribed by a physician and delivered by a qualified pharmacist. It is normally the job of the physician and the pharmacist to provide the patient with information on possible adverse effects and applicable doses. That information should also be provided in the documentation coming inside the drug packaging.

    Second, if Wikipedia provided such information, I’m sure that some health professionals would blame it for it. The problem with medical encyclopaedias, be them paper or online, even if absolutely reliable (if that exists), is that they are not suitable for nonprofessionals seeking treatment, be it for diagnosis (except for the simplest cases) or for dosing. Each patient is different and each needs to have its condition evaluated by a health professional.

    The problem is not with Wikipedia – it is with the US health system. Advertisements directed towards patients for prescription drugs are a bad idea. Overworked physicians not spending the time to explain to patients why they should take such or such drug and possible adverse effects is another problem.

  • Anonymous

    The problems with Wikipedia with respect to relatively obscure or (more commonly) controversial topics are true, but not unique to Wikipedia. Searching on the web for any given topic where there may be controversy can bring up conflicting information from various sides of the controversy. Relying on just one (Wikipedia or otherwise) would not be a prudent as checking several sources. Of course, then the problem becomes that most of the general public is scientifically illiterate enough to be easily misled by those with agendas dismissed by nearly every true expert in the field (consider vaccination, fluoride in water, amalgam dental fillings, etc.).

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