Friday, 10 February 2012

WikiProject Medicine: a Useful Tool for Medical Education?

There is an ongoing discussion amongst doctors in the 'heavyweight' medical press about the advantages and disadvantages of using the medical information found on the open source, openly edited encyclopaedic web resource Wikipedia.

 Wikipedia is run by a non-profit charity in the US and is available in several languages.

It is essentially written by its own readers, everyone writing about subjects that lie within their own areas of expertise and which they feel should be included in the encyclopaedia. Naturally at first there are disagreements about what is written in a particular article and after one author has finished another is free to alter or comment the article. After several rounds of debate a consensus is reached, references are linked in and the level of editing drops considerably as an article stabilises.

The net effect has been to provide articles (nearly 4 million English articles at the last count) that are arrived at via collaboration, albeit in a system where we have little idea of the status or reliability of the authors in question. The articles can be constantly updated as new information crops up.

 In practice Wikipedia does have an active panel of moderators who work to limit obvious acts of vandalism and misinformation - many changes have to conform to an editorial policy and while anyone can make a change those changes are checked quite quickly - within hours in my experience.

 This is all very well and has been a highly successful approach, largely consigning encyclopaedias produced in more traditional ways to the past

Pretty much anyone who uses the internet does so to look for information. Most use Google to find that information and Google ranks Wikipedia articles very highly, increasing the numbers of readers Wikipedia has and therefore the number of editors & authors. This 'virtuous circle' has helped form a very effective free, collaborative tool that is highly comprehensive and does pretty well with regards to accuracy and detail. Articles tend to be written from the 'non-expert' point of view and are easy to understand for the average man in the street.

 But what of subject that may ultimately put our lives at risk? Medical information has been the subject of a special sub-category of Wikipedia for some time - WikiProject:Medicine. The goal of this project is given here:
To produce reliable and neutral information on medical conditions, diagnosis and treatment in a readable and standardized format. It aims to deal with these diseases in every context, from molecular biology, symptomatology and diagnosis to therapeutical issues and historical and geopolitical ramifications. To this end, the WikiProject will collaborate with other WikiProjects relating to the health sciences.
There is much debate. One author contends that there is something to be gained in working with Facebook on this project, not least that it attracts 150 million viewers a month, arguing that this impetus could be harnessed by improving quality guidelines a little and with more involvement from moderators on 'unstable' pages.
There is a feeling that as long as contributors remain anonymous there will be a problem of verification of quality - but the involvement of laypeople is a good thing opening up many subjects to a wider audience in plainer English and may act as useful feedback from laypeople as to what is an important issue for ordinary people, bringing doctors back into writing for the needs of their patients.

Once suitable safeguards are in place this resource could become even more successful across the world, English speaking and otherwise, especially where money and facilities are minimal. It is already estimated that 70% of junior doctors (and the vast majority of medical students) use Wikipedia more than once per week, in its own way validating much of what is written.
Wikipedia is simple to use, simple to read and provides short clear summaries that are as useful to doctors & teachers as they are to the layperson. The writing is on the virtual 'wall' - there is a huge amount to be gained from engaging with this massively successful enterprise.

Other articles in the medical media on the use of Wikipedia:

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