Doctors use, but don’t rely totally on, Wikipedia

  • April 24, 2012

According to recent research that has been shared with Wikimedia UK, use of Wikipedia for medical information is almost universal among a sample of doctors. Many of them praise its accuracy, but they are aware of its faults and that it needs to be read critically.

The investigators conducted an online survey of medical staff at two large hospital trusts in England. Nearly all the 109 responses included free-text comments.

Unsurprisingly, the respondents all consult Wikipedia. The survey was concerned with whether they consult it for medical information and whether it affected their clinical practice.

Ninety percent said they look up medical information on Wikipedia, citing its ease of access and clear, concise layout among its advantages. Among those who denied using it, some commented that they only used Wikipedia for background knowledge: in other words, they were using it.

Even the keen users of Wikipedia stressed that they never base clinical decisions on Wikipedia alone. They saw it as a starting point, to be read critically and consulted alongside other sources. Representative quotes include:

“I use Wikipedia to gain a quick overview of a subject/topic that I am unfamiliar with or to jolt my memory of a subject. I would never base management or treatment of a patient I find there – for that I use my own knowledge, hospital protocols/guidelines, textbooks and advice from colleagues.”

“Most Wikipedia articles explaining diseases/disorders have been copied from a credible source such as a book or journal. Hence for the most part disease descriptions tend to be accurate and can be trusted. However I would nevertheless check it from other sources.”

The research, “Doctors’ use of Wikipedia in clinical decision-making” by David Matheson, Catherine Matheson, Nicholas Campain, Tom Price, and Patrick Collins, was presented as a poster at the Association for Medical Education in Europe conference 2011.

Contrary to what you might expect given that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone at all, a look at the list of Wikipedia users who focus on medical articles reveals a great many with some sort of medical or bioscience qualification, or who are studying for one. An event in Coventry at the end of August will bring together Wikipedians from this group with medical practitioners and researchers who are interested in contributing. Wikimedia UK has been working with the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and individual medical academics to get experts checking and improving Wikipedia’s medical articles. Last year, The Times observed that patients use a combination of Wikipedia and official sources to inform their choices about treatment (article behind a paywall). The newspaper praised experts who improve Wikipedia, saying their work helps to empower patient choices and give them confidence in their treatment.

This summary by Martin Poulter. Thanks to Suzanne Hardy of Newcastle University for bringing the research to our attention, and Dr David Mathieson of the University of Nottingham for help with this summary.

4 thoughts on “Doctors use, but don’t rely totally on, Wikipedia”

  1. It’s good to see evidence of this being stated. A lot of doctors criticise the use of Wikipedia, but taken with an open eye, its an incredible resource.

    As the main contributor to another medical wiki – MedRevise – – I see a lot of value to communal education in medical fields, and provided it is used as one of a number of resources, its one that can be very helpful.

  2. When I wrote this post, I was concerned to be neutral and keep my personal reflections to myself. So I’ll include them here as a personal comment.

    One conclusion to draw is that Wikipedia is fulfilling a function for doctors that official services aren’t doing well (otherwise the doctors would be consulting those services instead). This means that Wikipedia is saving the NHS some large amount of money in terms of good treatment that is delivered and bad decisions that are avoided. It’s hard to quantify how much is being save, but it seems it could be many times Wikimedia UK’s one million pound budget. Imagine a public IT project to get plain-English summaries of medical facts and findings to every doctor in the country to help inform their practice. It would be an expensive, unwieldy beast but in reality we have this for free through Wikipedia.

    The cost is that you can’t totally trust it and have to evaluate it critically, but from the above it’s clear that doctors know this, and this is something you could say about official, published sources as well.

    Another conclusion is that the quality of medical information on Wikipedia is an important public health issue, and it’s an area where we need to be even more vigilant than usual for misinformation, cranks or commercial publicity. My own experience with Wikipedia quality in this area was surprisingly positive. I’ve looked over the shoulders of medical experts in offices of the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK as they’ve read Wikipedia articles in their area. When I asked them what needs to be improved, their criticisms have been by their own admission rather minor.

    I had a chat with my own GP recently and he is keen on Wikipedia, while recognising that it’s incomplete and evolving. Should I be worried or glad that Wikipedia articles shape how he treats me? I’m glad in that I don’t expect any human being to be a reliable database of every medical fact and figure: I expect him to show good judgement, and inform that judgement by looking up facts and figures in an appropriate source. For some things that’s Wikipedia.

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