Is Wikipedia misleading the public on health?

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, contains errors in nine out of 10 of its health entries, and should be treated with caution, say scientists in the USA.

The research covered in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association stated that ‘Most Wikipedia articles representing the 10 most costly medical conditions in the United States contain many errors when checked against standard peer-reviewed sources. Caution should be used when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care’.

But then, the whole area of ‘volunteers’ ‘editing’ articles has been fraught with allegations of bullying, offensive comment to contributor writers and is, anyway, clearly open to bias and even misuse and abuse by people with agendas such as skeptics or pharmaceutical companies.

A spokesman for Wikipedia UK stated to the BBC that “Wikipedia can be edited by anybody, but many volunteers from the medical profession check the pages for inaccuracies”. Well, that’s all right then. And, of course, none of these volunteers have any links whatsoever to Pharmaceutical companies.

Entries for some areas of health such as Complementary and Integrative Medicine, even though written by scientists of competence, are known to have been sabotaged and altered by people with such agendas. This has received a great deal of negative comment on the Internet.

The American researchers in the study compared entries on Wikipedia on conditions such as heart disease, lung cancer, depression and diabetes with peer-reviewed medical research.

They said most articles in Wikipedia contained “many errors”.

Lead author Dr Robert Hasty, of the Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine in North Carolina, said: “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.”

Yet, often when patients search for a health topic, Wikipedia is in the top two or three headings listed – it is the sixth most popular Internet site in the world. It is incorrectly read by many people with health problems as if it is some sort of consumer bible.

There are now even ‘clones’ of Wikipedia, like the Skeptic ‘gutter rag’ RationalWiki, which can feature totally subjective ‘articles’ using repeated 4 letter words and claims so wild they border on the false and defamatory. Readers looking for health information might easily mistake these clone sites for the real thing, making their quest for health even more difficult. It’s becoming a mess.

Wikimedia UK, its British arm, said it was “crucial that people with health concerns spoke to their GP first “.

Worryingly, Wikipedia UK claim that about 70% of physicians and medical students use the website.

Stevie Benton, at Wikimedia UK, said there were a “number of initiatives” in place to help improve the articles, “especially in relation to health and medicine”.

He said the charity had a project to bring together volunteer Wikipedia editors with a medical knowledge to identify articles that need improvement, find credible sources and make entries more “accurate and more readable”. Presumably this team will include practitioners in complementary medicine too. We can only hope. We can’t have the bias and errors being judged by more of the same, surely?

A couple of years ago it was announced that help was at hand – Wikipedia would be working with Cancer Research UK to review cancer-related articles by clinical researchers and writers to keep them accurate and up-to-date.

This may help with the accuracy, but it’s hard to know how that endorsement is going to make the Internet claims of bias go away.

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