Using Wikipedia To Self-Diagnose Medical Conditions Is Apparently Not A Good Idea
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Wikipedia may be the most popular general reference website on the Internet, but it is far from the most accurate, as evidenced by a new study that discovered inaccuracies in 90 percent of its health-related entries.
In the study, lead investigator Dr. Robert Hasty of Campbell University and his colleagues reviewed the collaboratively edited, free access online encyclopedia’s articles on 10 of the most costly medical conditions, including coronary artery disease, lung cancer, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus.
The study authors, whose work appears in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, randomly assigned a pair of investigators to independently review each article, identifying implications and assertions passed off as fact in those entries. The reviewers then conducted a literature search to find out whether or not there was evidence to support those claims.
According to Alice Philipson of The Telegraph, the researchers found multiple articles that contained factual errors, largely because of the fact that anyone can create and edit entries. For example, the hypertension article claims that for the condition to be correctly diagnosed, high blood pressure readings have to be obtained on three separate occasions – erroneous information that could delay treatment and put patients at risk.
“While Wikipedia is a convenient tool for conducting research, from a public health standpoint patients should not use it as a primary resource because those articles do not go through the same peer-review process as medical journals,” Dr. Hasty, whose team reviewed the 10 Wikipedia articles on April 25, 2012 and found misinformation in all but one of them, told BBC News health reporter Pippa Stephens on Tuesday.
Wikipedia, which launched in 2001, contains over 31 million entries (including at least 20,000 health-related entries) in 285 languages, according to The Daily Mail’s Sophie Freeman. The study authors added that Wikipedia is the sixth most visited website in terms of global traffic, and that between 47 percent and 70 percent of all physicians and medical students having admitted to using it as a reference.
They also note that Wikipedia “has several mechanisms in place to deal with unverifiable information and vandalism,” and that “most instances of vandalism only exist for a few days after being identified, with half of the corrections being posted less than 3 minutes after being identified.” In fact, they cite research which found that corrections were made almost immediately in 42 percent of those incidents.
Furthermore, they pointed that there were several limitations to their study, including the fact that it did not address errors of omission, meaning that they did not check to make sure that the entries lacked essential information about a topic. They also said their findings would have been stronger had more than two reviewers analyzed each article, and that using physicians-in-training rather than content experts as reviewers could have created a bias.
Even so, Dr. Hasty and his co-authors cautioned that “health care professionals, trainees, and patients should use caution when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care. Our findings reinforce the idea that physicians and medical students who currently use Wikipedia as a medical reference should be discouraged from doing so because of the potential for errors.”
Stevie Benton of Wikimedia UK told Stephens that there were a “number of initiatives” being enacted to help improve the quality of the articles, “especially in relation to health and medicine.” He said that the online encyclopedia was teaming up with Cancer Research UK, having all cancer-related articles reviewed by clinical researchers and making sure that each of them are accurate and contain the latest information on the disease.
“However, it is crucial that anybody with concerns over their health contacts their GP as a first point of call,” he added. “Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, should not take the place of a qualified medical practitioner.”