Q: What is the #1 online source of medical information for patients and health care professionals?
Epocrates? Mayo Clinic? Facebook?
No, no, and, thankfully, no (although Facebook is #4 in the U.K.).
A: The #1 source is Wikipedia.
Wikipedia bills itself as a “free encyclopedia” — good so far, as encyclopedias traditionally have been an accurate source of information — that “anyone can edit” — uh oh….what was that last part? “Anyone?” Therein lies the (potential) problem.
The IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics recently released a report called Engaging Patients Through Social Media, which examined the impact of technology — including the Internet, social media, smartphones, iPads, etc. — on the delivery of healthcare information to patients and providers. Patients often begin their search on Google, but they find Wikipedia articles have top placement and consider those articles to be credible.
While younger patients research information prior to treatment, older patients (50+) often begin treatment first and then go online for medical advice. Regardless of the order, IMS found that “Wikipedia is used throughout the entire patient journey, not just at the point of treatment initiation or change in therapy.”
The authors reviewed 50 major disease-specific Wikipedia articles and found a strong correlation between page views and medicine use, suggesting a high level of confidence in the information presented on those pages.
But the question remains: How can Wikipedia ensure the accuracy of such sensitive and vital information? Even the authors of the IMS study said “there is yet to be established a broad approach to funneling the vast resources of healthcare institutions, the pharmaceutical industry, regulators and patient groups into the information that is being used by millions of patients.”
Enter Dr. Amin Azzam, a health sciences associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. Last year, Dr. Azzam launched the first course to give credit at a U.S. medical school for editing medical content on Wikipedia. “We’re recognizing the impact Wikipedia can have to educate patients and health care providers across the globe, and want users to receive the most accurate publicly available, sound medical information possible,” said Azzam.
The course was available to fourth year med students in December, a month normally filled with travel for residency interviews. But this course and its content allowed the students to work remotely so long as they had access to Wikipedia.
While Wikipedia has proven its accuracy, Azzam told Quartz that “medical professionals haven’t been editing Wikipedia” due to a perceived bias from a dated, more traditional physician code of honor. But, he said, current students are more accepting of Wikipedia and the five students who took the course in December helped to make the program a great success, according to Azzam.
The course focused on editing articles found on Wikiproject Medicine, which “seeks to benefit the world by giving the general public and health care professionals a text they can all read, appreciate, and respect,” according to the site.
Due to its success and relevancy, Dr. Azzam and UCSF will offer the Wikipedia program again this year. Prior to the launch of the program, Dr. Azzam told the New York Times that physicians “as a profession have our corpus of knowledge, and we owe it as a profession to educate the lay public.”