Fact Checking 'Dr. Wiki'

Just about everyone has searched online for facts on health conditions, symptoms and risk factors, relying on Google searches or websites such as Wikipedia.

The online, self-described “free-content encyclopedia”, Wikipedia is the sixth most visited site on the Internet.  Among both consumers and medical professionals, it is the most popular “general reference” website.

However, a recent study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that nine out of 10 Wikipedia entries on the costliest medical conditions in the U.S. are inaccurate.

The researchers chose 10 crowd-sourced Wikipedia articles on coronary artery disease, lung cancer, major depressive disorder, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, back pain, hyperlipidemia and concussions. All except the articles on concussions contained a significant amount of errors when compared to peer-reviewed sources.

The study used the top 10 “most costly conditions” based on public and private expenditures in 2008 — the most recent year with complete data available.

Many users don’t realize that Wikipedia depends on continuous input from unpaid volunteers, who can make edits or add information at anytime. When it comes to facts on any subject, the information is often not substantiated by expert sources or reviewed by peers.

“Health care professionals, trainees, and patients should use caution when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care,” the study’s conclusion says.

The study also states that “physicians and medical students who currently use Wikipedia as a medical reference should be discouraged from doing so” because of potential errors or inaccuracies.

Nonetheless, many people rely on Wikipedia for information on health matters, including medications, instead of relying directly on health system sites, such as, government sites or peer-reviewed sites.

Moreover, even if the information online is correct, consumers often reach conclusions that could deter them from seeing a doctor, or they misconstrue the provided data, said Jack Ziffer, Ph.D., M.D., Executive Vice President, Chief Medical and Clinical Transformation Officer for Baptist Health South Florida.

“We are all for patients seeking information on the Internet, but they need to recognize the source and they should not come to a final conclusion without consulting their doctor,” Dr. Ziffer said.

“Despite these concerns, Wikipedia has become a popular source of health care information, with 47 percent to 70 percent of physicians and medical students admitting to using it as a reference,” the study’s authors say.

Dr. Ziffer emphasizes that most physicians consult with peer-reviewed medical journals online to get updates on a range of health conditions, diseases or treatments. No general-reference site such as Wikipedia is considered a wholly reliable source of information. Many of the same medical, peer-reviewed articles are generally available online to consumers as well.

There is one possible wrinkle in the study’s finding, the authors themselves concede. They did not “check the assertions in the peer-reviewed sources”. That is a factor that can prove important, the authors said, because peer-reviewed sources are often not in agreement.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), websites run by government, university or nonprofit organizations tend to be reliable, because they are not funded by companies that may have a conflict-of-interest.

The AAFP also says to:

  • Make sure the information was either written or medically reviewed by a doctor, or that the original source is clearly noted.
  • Look for reliable sources for statistics.
  • Make sure the information is factual, versus opinion.
  • Look for information that has been written or updated within the past year.
  • “An informed patient is always a good thing, because they always come with good questions and they are better informed overall,” said Dr. Ziffer. “But everyone should recognize the value of a professional and the resources they have available with their doctor.”

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