Study finds many errors on Wikipedia articles for most costly diseases

By: Jonah Comstock | May 28, 2014        

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wikipedia diabetesAccording to a new study, Wikipedia’s medical articles contain numerous errors, or at least don’t line up with up-to-date, peer-reviewed journals. In fact, nine out of 10 of the diseases identified as most costly for the healthcare system by the Agency for Healthcare Reform and Quality (AHRQ) had a statistically significant discrepancy between the two.

In the study, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, two medical students independently went through a printed version of each of the articles and identified all factual assertions. They then checked those facts on (in this order) UpToDate, PubMed, and Google Scholar.

The 10 conditions that were identified in the study were lung cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, coronary artery disease, COPD, hyperlipidemia, concussion, hypertension, major depressive disorder, and back pain. Of those only the concussion article was free of a significant number of discrepancies.

These findings may not come as a surprise to many people. But the researchers say they undertook the study because medical students, if not practicing doctors, do use Wikipedia. 

“Wikipedia’s prominence has been made possible by its fundamental design as a wiki, or collaborative database, allowing all users the ability to add, delete, and edit information at will. However, it is this very feature that has raised concern in the medical community regarding the reliability of the information it contains,” the authors write. “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. In actuality, these figures may be higher because some researchers suspect its use is underreported. Although the effect of Wikipedia’s information on medical decision making is unclear, it almost certainly has an influence.”

Recent studies have shown that in addition to some doctors using Wikipedia for medical research, patients certainly do as well.

In January of this year, an IMS report on pharma and social media looked at patient engagement with Wikipedia, which they found was a major source for disease information. They found that the top 100 Wikipedia pages related to healthcare were accessed on average 1.9 million times over the last year, with tuberculosis receiving the most views at 4.2 million, and acne vulgaris getting the least views with 1.3 million. In addition to patients, the report found that 50 percent of physicians use Wikipedia, particularly for up-to-date information on particular conditions.

IMS tracked Wikipedia page views against related medication sales and concluded that patients were using Wikipedia at various points in their diagnosis and treatment, with young people proving more likely to research a disease before deciding on a treatment, and older people more likely to look for information once their treatment has already begun.

Finally, in a survey conducted last month by Markovsky Health, Wikipedia was the second-most viewed online source of health information by patients, surpassed only by WebMD.

Typically when those who know better find mistakes in Wikipedia articles, they fix them. No word on whether the researchers corrected the articles they studied.

  • Don Hackett

    Did you know that RxWiki’s Life Sciences Library of digital encyclopedias answers most of Wikipedia’s shortcomings in the health and medications content publishing? RxWiki has:
    only pharmacist can edit or create pages

    the Perpetual-Peer-Review editorial process ensure at least two pharmacist have reviewed every page.

    most RxWiki pages include a video for those who can’t read

    social media syndication

    financial discounts such as co-pay vouchers

    and access to clinical trial information.

  • Guest

    How many of these errors, were factually correct at some time in the past? What proportion of doctors are completely up to date on the latest research of these health conditions? Of the people editing these wikipedia health entries, what proportion of them are doctors? How easy is it to do a study which examines the accuracy of what wikipedia is telling patients compared with examining the accuracy of what millions of doctors are telling their patients?

    This study illustrates a problem, which is relatively easy to fix, with some modern software/website engineering….Although it does not shed light on the fact that many doctors are not completely up to date on the latest research either.

  • Roberto Lattuada

    As the area of “digital errors” is very dear for us at myHealthbox (by the way, never heard of us ?), I though I’d send a quick comment on this topic. The whole are of digital information is obviously prone to errors but never those errors have been so dangerous like in the case of health information. Doctors make mistakes, do not have uptodate information, are biased and carry expensive liability insurances but what happens when the medical advice is given by an unknown user on the web ? Nobody to blame usually but the damage level could be the same of even higher. As governments and health institutions (see how long it took the US to try to provide a seal of approval for health apps) are generally slow at reacting to new challenges coming from techology there is currently a “no man’s land situation” whereby anyone (given a little disclaimer on top of the web site) can publish incorrect, partial information without any control nor consequences. We at myHealthbox took a very different approach to a specific problem: the availability of uptodate, official information on medicines and healthcare products that users and professionals can trust. How do we do this (while more comprehensive information is available on our site) we simply provide only information that has been approved by the relevant authorities (no editing, no copy&paste) in a format that is less prone to editing mistakes: pdf for the basic info and our new eLeaflet format for the most advanced, multimedia enabled, information leaflets. Unfortunately contrary to what Guest says, the problem is not so easy to fix, especially on a large scale.
    Let me know what you think.

  • freonoman

    well, citing original research (or primary source, including published ones) is not allowed on wikipedia. so discrepancies with current research should be expected until the results become popular with the media.