Study says it is unwise to use Wikipedia as a source of health advice

Wikipedia tends to top the list of most trusted and most visited websites. However, this reputation of Wikipedia is under threat owing to a revelation that came as a result of a study. To go by the results of the study, it warns people by saying – “Don’t use Wikipedia for medical advice.” This warning holds good reason considering the study traced factual errors in nine out of ten articles on the most common medical conditions.

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The study was carried out by researchers from Campbell University working with other research centers in US. The research started with assessing different articles on common diseases like back pain, depression, high blood pressure, and more. Two researchers compared material in ten articles with peer-reviewed published literature. The conclusion they arrived at was that the information and facts given in nine out of ten articles did not match the peer-reviewed sources.

The findings have an open access for everybody, as it was published in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Osteopathic Association. The study was cross-sectional, comparing medical information on Wikipedia with the medical information on peer-reviewed literature.

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The researchers took up ten health conditions and assessed articles related to them on Wikipedia –

  • Cancer (lung cancer)
  • Heart disease (coronary artery disease)
  • Osteoarthritis (osteoarthritis)
  • Mental disorders (major depressive disorder)
  • Chronic obstructive lung disease/asthma (COPD)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Trauma-related disorders (concussion)
  • Back problems (back pain)
  • Diabetes (diabetes mellitus)
  • High levels of lipids (fat) in the blood (hyperlipidaemia)

Two researchers separately reviewed two articles and matched them with the medical database in peer-reviewed medical literature. For instance, the researchers took up factual statement, such as “diabetes is a chronic condition” and then searched for peer-reviewed literature published or updated on a US website called UpToDate, since last five years. UpToDate website works as a supporter of doctors that provides them with evidence based information, thus, helping them in making clinical decisions.

The researchers used other websites like PubMed or Google Scholar, in case they did not get the required help from UpToDate. They searched peer-reviewed literature to confirm whether the statements on Wikipedia match them or they contradict.

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In all the articles taken up as a sample, the researchers found at least one statement that did not match with the peer-reviewed literature. They found significant differences in the basic health conditions they assessed. This study revealed that one needs to be extremely cautious while obtaining medical information from the internet. The websites, which provide medical information, should be able to show that all the information on their site is in agreement with the information on peer-reviewed literature.

Majority of the UK’s media coverage of the study was quite reasonable; however, an exaggerated version of the headline appeared in some newspapers. These headlines went so far as to claim that ninety percent of medical entries in Wikipedia are inaccurate. Now this claim seems far beyond reality, as the study only took a sample of 10 medical articles, so it would be unwise to extrapolate the results of the study throughout the entire database of Wikipedia, which contains more than twenty thousand articles exclusively on health.

Wikipedia is a website that is widely used, and to which anybody can contribute and edit. Probably this is the reason that makes this website susceptible to inaccuracy. To avoid falling prey to the inaccurate medical information on Wikipedia or for that matter on any other site, a reliable article will provide links of peer-reviewed sources that you could use to confirm the accuracy of the subject being discussed in the article.

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Wikipedia is one of the most popular and highly used website by people across the globe. Anybody without having special knowledge or qualification can edit the information. Many medical students have used the medical information on Wikipedia, who now fear the credibility of the information that the website provides. Some studies have suggested the quality of the content on Wikipedia is similar to the content on sites like Encyclopedia. On the other hand, some studies suggested that it is not a reliable source, owing to inaccuracies in its articles. In order to solve this mystery, the researchers decided to do research on this topic.

Users should never ever rely on a single source for medical and health information. In order to judge whether the website is a reputable and a trustworthy source, look for footnotes and links provided at the end of the page. Genuine websites always provide footnotes or links to information that support the content published on the sites.

Bearing in mind the results of this study, people should be more aware of identifying their condition. It should be noted that though websites have a wealth of information that you could use, it is always better to visit a doctor for a correct diagnosis of your ailment.