Friday, May 30, 2014

Is Wikipedia a Reliable Medical Reference?

According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, 47 to 70% of physicians and medical students seem to think so, at least they admit to referring to it. After all it is convenient, right? It always appears on that first page of your Google search hits, everyone uses it, physicians contribute much of the content, therefore it must be good! If that has been you opinion of Wikipedia and you are not afraid to change it, you might want to take a look at this new study or any of the other studies cited in the article's references.

Robert Hasty DO, along with 17 other DO's, decided to evaluate the accuracy of Wikipedia articles on the ten most costly medical conditions by comparing their assertions with standard, evidence-based, peer-reviewed sources. What they discovered has prompted them to recommend CAUTION, especially when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care! "For commonly identified assertions, there was statistically significant discordance between 9 of the 10 Wikipedia articles" (with the article on Concussion being the exception). So 90% of the articles chosen for this comparison study, contained errors! In addition it must be noted that the study did not account for possible errors of omission as well.
 The authors concluded by saying "physicians and medical students who currently use Wikipedia as a medical reference should be discouraged from doing so because of the potential for errors."
The nature of Wikipedia is such too that any one could edit any article at any time, for better or for worse; so this is a bit of a moving target as well. Wikipedia  has expressed the desire to continue to improve the quality of the content, particularly in regards to health and medicine, by including references to the literature, flagging unverified information, etc.

Click on the blog title to access the article in full text, here for an Editorial by Lori Fitterling, MLS.
UPDATE: March 18, 2015 The results of a new study analyzing the value of Wikipedia for specifically respiratory health information has been published in the journal "Advances in Physiology Education" from the American Physiological Society. "Is Wikipedia a reliable learning resource for medical students? Evaluating respiratory topics." by Samy Azer. Some quotes from the article:
" ... medical students have shown a tendency to use online resources such as Google and Wikipedia as their first choice for their learning issues/questions... approximately one-third of students reported using Wikipedia for academic purposes."
"Wikipedia has become popular enough such that search engines, including Google and Yahoo, usually show Wikipedia topics on the top of their search results, particularly for health-related queries."
Of course they do because the ranking order in most browsers is simply based on popularity; not accuracy, currency, reliability, credibility, or any such content value judgement.
"...internet users do not diligently evaluate web information. ...people tend to make the least possible effort in verifying information sources."
" students seem to compromise information credibility for speed of use, accessibility, and convenience when selecting their learning sources."
In conclusion the results of the study determined that
"...the Wikipedia articles on the respiratory system and its disorders are not suitable for medical students as learning resources. Medical students should become aware of these problems in the Wikipedia articles, and medical educators should direct them to appropriate resources that have been written/edited by scholarly authors and are regularly updated and accurate."
CITATION: Azer, S. A. (2015). Is Wikipedia a reliable learning resource for medical students? Evaluating respiratory topics. Advances In Physiology Education, 39(1), 5-14. doi:10.1152/advan.00110.2014

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