It might not be wise to trust Wikipedia, the sixth most popular website on the internet, to provide accurate medical information.
A recent study shows that Wikipedia articles about medical conditions are likely to be rife with errors.
Researchers looked at Wikipedia articles for the 10 most costly medical conditions in the U.S. — including coronary artery disease, lung cancer, depression, osteoarthritis, hypertension, diabetes, and back pain — and found that nine out of 10 contained information that is not in line with the latest medical research.
Anyone can edit Wikipedia entries, and medical information is complicated and ever-evolving, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. That said, it also shouldn’t be interpreted as evidence that Wikipedia is uniquely unreliable.
Back in 2005, a study in Nature found that Encyclopædia Britannica and Wikipedia had roughly the same error rate in a subset of their scientific articles. (Britannica contested that study’s conclusions.) Even the best sources of medical information cannot possibly include all of the latest research, and while peer-review is an important safeguard, it does not mean published studies are unassailably correct.
Still, the new finding is particularly troubling since preliminary research suggests that physicians and medical students commonly admit to using Wikipedia as a reference. This doesn’t necessarily mean that information found on Wikipedia influences the decisions of doctors, who consult other sources as well, but it is possible.
Another, more pressing concern is that patients might be making their own medical decisions based on information they find on the internet. In the past year, 72% of internet users admitted to looking online for health information, according to a Pew Research report.
The bottom line: always check with a doctor when you have a medical question, consult peer-reviewed research yourself, and never rely on the internet to diagnose or treat a problem.
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