A crazy idea everybody's having: using Wikipedia for health information

Laurent, M., & Vickers, T. (2009). Seeking Health Information Online: Does Wikipedia Matter? Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 16 (4), 471-479 DOI: 10.1197/jamia.M3059

Back in the day, patients used to show up at doctors’ practices with a set of symptoms. Since the advent of the Internet, though, they show up with a set of symptoms and a diagnosis of their own design. Now, this diagnosis is often concocted using whatever health information they run into while googling their scared asses around the web after the appearance of that skin rush or of that nasty lump. Traditionally, health professionals have expressed their disapproval towards these web-savvy patients who challenge medical diagnosis, multiply clinically-inappropriate requests [1], disrupt physician-patients relationship [2] and ultimately create a widespread climate of “cybercondria” [3].

A recent article published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association deals with this situation in a different way.  The basic assumption here is that people do use Wikipedia to find relevant medical information, and that doctors should simply deal with it by contributing to the online encyclopedia. The authors (a PhD student from Leuven, Belgium, and a post-doc at washington University, St. Louis) measured Wikipedia’s ranking on general Internet search engines. The keywords entered were selected from MedlinePlus, NHS Direct Online, and the National Organization of Rare Diseases. The idea is to compare specialised medical databases results with Wikipedia ones and then assess whether article quality influenced this ranking.

And here’s the result: Wikipedia ranked among the first ten results in 71–85% of search engines and keywords tested, surpassing MedlinePlus and NHS Direct Online. This might not come as a surprise, given the fact that the general public is less familiar with the latter services. But the fact is that Wikipedia ranked higher with quality articles, too. The popular open encyclopedia turned out to be particularly good for rare diseases and the page viewed increased parallel to the occurrence of seasonal disorders, news of epidemiological trends and emerging health concerns.

The article is all the more important as it follows in the trend of recent literature highlighting the importance of online collaborative information as tool of empowering for both laymen and health professionals. The simple use of Google, for instance, turns out to lead to the right diagnostics in 58% of the cases [4] and, as far as Wikipedia articles go, although less accurate or less complete in some fields, they show a marked potential for improvement in the short run (less than 90 days) [5].