San Francisco, CA – Since its birth 15 years ago, Wikipedia has repeatedly proven that its accuracy holds up well against more traditional encyclopedic sources. In fact in 2005, Nature wrote that Wikipedia’s accuracy was in the same ballpark as Encyclopaedia Britannica. While poor quality data and intentional misinformation have always been inherent concerns for an open platform, IBM researchers found early on that Wikipedians are diligent and give the site an effective means of self healing so that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly—so quickly that most users will never see its effects.”

Despite this history of credibility, the potential life-and-death consequences of inaccuracies in articles related to health topics keep some people up at night. Credible reviews of the accuracy of medical information contained in Wikipedia’s articles have yielded mixed results. While the topics of depression, schizophrenia, and nephrology were deemed spot-on, others left much to be desired or included details that hadn’t been substantiated by scientific evidence – which can put readers’ health at risk.

Doctors and Academics to the Rescue

Dr. James Heilman is among those aforementioned folks who lose sleep over errors on the site. As a practicing ER physician and dedicated Wikipedian, he has spent years treating patients and countless hours using his expertise to edit Wikipedia’s health articles and improve their reliability. Beyond the 60 hours he personally dedicates to improving the site each week, he founded the WikiProject Medicine group, which brings more than 300 editors together to focus on improving the quality of the site’s health information. This is good news for the multitude who seek quality medical content on Wikipedia—in 2013, the site had more than 6.5 billion page views on health topics.

Dr. Heilman and his partners aren’t alone in this fight. The Wiki Education Foundation works to leverage academia in content creation and editing for the site. It engages colleges and universities to encourage their faculties to embed strong content creation into the curriculum in their classes. LiAnna Davis, the Foundation’s director of programs, suggests “Rather than write a biography of a woman scientist for their class that their instructor would read and throw away and never engage in again, these students instead have the opportunity to create content for Wikipedia where thousands of people can gain from their work.” Since January of this year, hundreds of science classes have improved the content of thousands articles on the site (including more than 300 completely new entries), and these have generated 102 million views to date.

Why This Matters –

With more than 374 million unique visitors and 18 billion page views each month, Wikipedia is one of the largest reference sites in the world. Today, millions of patients are turning to it for health information, and they aren’t the only ones visiting health topic pages—94% of all medical students surveyed in 2012 used the site for medical information as well.

The healthcare industry as a whole has a huge opportunity to help patients and physicians by partnering with existing Wiki groups to improve the content of pages most relevant to their disease states and brands.

About the Author:

Drew Beck has spent his entire career in healthcare — from direct patient care as an EMT in college to countless roles in pharma sales and global marketing for leading life science companies including Eli Lilly & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline. He is currently a leader on the Syneos Health Insights & Innovation team, a group charged with leveraging deep expertise in virtual collaboration, behavioral science, trends-based-innovation, custom research and global marketing insights.