The world’s most popular general reference site on the Internet, Wikipedia, may be helpful for users trying to find basic information on a wide variety of topics, but when it comes to health and health care entries, people should probably look elsewhere, according to a study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
The study, conducted by two medical students, involved selecting Wikipedia articles for diseases identified as most costly for the health care system by the Agency for Healthcare Reform and Quality (AHRQ), which were then compared with the information found in up-to-date, peer-reviewed journals.
In fact, the report found nine out of 10 of the Wikipedia articles had statistically significant discrepancies compared with the information found in professional journals.
The 10 most costly conditions in the United States by public and private expenditure in 2008—the year that the most complete data were available for the present study—were identified from the publicly available database from the AHRQ.
The organization lists heart disease, cancer, mental disorders, trauma-related disorders, osteoarthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease/asthma, hypertension, diabetes, back problems, and hyperlipidemia as the 10 costliest medical conditions.
The authors then identified the 10 Wikipedia articles that they believed were most closely related to each of those conditions. The report also noted that because Wikipedia articles are dynamic and subject to frequent changes and updates, all the selected articles were printed on April 25, 2012, for the purpose of the study.
"The present study demonstrated that most Wikipedia articles on the 10 most costly conditions in the United States contained assertions that are inconsistent with peer-reviewed sources," the report said. "Because our standard was the peer-reviewed published literature, it can be argued that these assertions on Wikipedia represent factual errors."
However, the report’s authors were also careful to point out the limitations of the study, including the fact that they did not check the assertions in the peer-reviewed sources, a limitation that could prove important because peer-reviewed sources are often not in agreement.
Future studies might also include how the convenience of Wikipedia may influence perception of the reliability of the information found, the report noted.
"Health care professionals, trainees and patients should use caution when using Wikipedia to answer questions regarding patient care," the report concluded. "Our findings reinforce the idea that physicians and medical students who currently use Wikipedia as a medical reference should be discouraged from doing so because of the potential for errors."