Wikipedia Health Articles Full of Errors

Nine of 10 Wikipedia health entries contained inaccuracies

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The amount of medication information available to patients on the Internet is expanding and becoming more complex every day. Today, millions of patients can jump online and read the latest research in heart disease.

While increased access to information helps patients make informed decisions, many well-known websites often contain erroneous content that can mean the difference between a healthy choice and a harmful one.

In a recent study, nine out of 10 health entries reviewed on Wikipedia contained inaccurate information or misleading statements.

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."

This research should not discourage patients from seeking to learn more about their health. But it strongly emphasizes the need to find credible, timely and well-reviewed information sources.

"Read health information reviewed by licensed professionals."

The study was conducted by researchers at Campbell University in North Carolina, and published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

In examining the accuracy of Wikipedia articles, Dr. Hasty and colleagues selected 10 Wikipedia articles representing the most costly conditions by private and public spending in the United States in 2008 and compared them against the published standards of practice found in peer-reviewed journals.

The investigators read each article and summarized each individual statement made about the topic and then performed an in-depth literature search to see whether or not the statements were true.

The articles selected included common, serious health conditions, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, back pain and depression. Of the 10 entries reviewed, only the article on concussions did not produce any identifiable inaccuracies. However, the study did note that it was not designed to detect errors of omission, or important facts that were not included when they should have been.

The authors of the study wrote in their conclusion that "Health care professionals, trainees, and patients should use caution when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care [and] physicians and medical students who currently use Wikipedia as a medical reference should be discouraged from doing so because of the potential for errors."

It is important for patients to select health information sources that are trustworthy, properly reviewed and written with patients in mind.

In recent years, Wikipedia has tried to improve the quality of its health entries by better involving health professionals through its WikiMedicine initiative. However, Wikipedia’s shortcomings have been significant enough that other websites and publishers have taken the initiative to address the need for higher quality health content.

For example, RxWiki, an Austin-based health publishing company, is attempting to improve the medication information found on the internet by having pharmacists become editors. RxWiki’s content benefits from a wiki-like model called "perpetual peer review," in which all content is written, edited and published only by licensed experts.

Unlike Wikipedia, RxWiki only allows qualified professionals to publish patient-centric content in an easy-to-understand language to avoid confusion and misunderstanding.

“Patients are inevitably going to go online to search for their health information; what is important is that they find high quality, accurate content rather than misinformation. RxWiki is one initiative that effectively uses pharmacists to bring meaningful patient education to the web,” said University of Texas College of Pharmacy dean Dr. Lynn Crismon.

Millions of patients use the web to research health topics every day and many will use Wikipedia to make decisions that can have lasting effects. The recent study released by Campbell University shows that while the web is an excellent tool for finding information, patients still need to be careful about whether or not they can trust their sources to be reliable.

Patient Conversation Media, Inc. is the majority shareholder of both dailyRx and RxWiki.

Review Date: 
May 29, 2014
Last Updated:
May 29, 2014