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Canadian doctor leads Wiki Project Med Foundation

By Rosie Lombardi

The accuracy of Wikipedia’s medical content needs to be improved – and a Canadian doctor is leading the charge at the Wiki Project Med Foundation, a crowdsourcing initiative. Dr. James Heilman (pictured) is an ER doctor at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital and a clinical instructor at UBC who was seduced by Wikipedia back in 2007. “I was working a night shift and my department was quiet. I was browsing the Internet when I ran across an article on Wikipedia that had a substantial number of errors. Then I saw an edit button – and I realized I could fix the Internet! I’ve been hooked since,” he says.

Today, Heilman is an avid, hands-on Wikipedian. “I’m one of Wikipedia’s most active medical editors. My wife likes to refer to Wikipedia as my mistress.”

He’s also president of the Wiki Project Med Foundation, an incorporated NGO based in New York. Started up in 2012, its primary goal is to encourage participation by doctors and other healthcare workers in improving Wikipedia’s medical content and making accurate content available to everyone.

But ad hoc efforts have been underway for many years to improve Wikipedia’s medical content. WikiProject Medicine, a project that was started up in 2004, is an informal group of several hundred volunteer editors around the globe who work to provide high-quality, accurate health content on Wikipedia to everyone in the language of their choice.

“Wikipedia is what the world is reading. Wikipedia is what your patients are reading. I think we as physicians have a responsibility to make sure that our patients have access to accurate, high-quality healthcare content,” says Heilman.

He points out that a recent US study found that the average person visits their doctor three times a year, and spends one hour speaking with a physician.

By contrast, the average patient spends fifty-two hours a year looking on the internet for healthcare information.

“If you view medicine and being a physician as an effort to improve peoples’ health, one of the most effective ways to do this is through Wikipedia,” he says.

The quality of Wikipedia’s medical content is variable, he says. Some of Wikipedia’s articles are as good as any other medical resource out there.

But some of Wikipedia’s medical content still needs work to bring it up to a high standard.

“There’s some inaccurate content, but that’s definitely the minority. The greater concern is that not all articles deal with topics in a broad enough scope. There is a lot of information that’s missing, that should be present in a broad summary of a disease. Missing information is of greater concern than false information.”

The project needs more doctors involved in improving the site. “We’re looking for help from doctors to peer-review our articles. We’re also looking for people to help improve our content.”

The project has developed a rating scale to help readers and editors decide the extent to which the information is reliable. “Every article has a rating. And every article on Wikipedia is a work in progress. The two highest quality scales are a good article and featured article. For an article to reach that level, it needs to pass a semi-formal peer review process. But less than 1% of all medical articles have passed this semi-formal peer review.”

Articles are also rated for their importance, and there’s encouraging news on this front. “Of the articles that we deem to be the most important, over 40% of those articles have passed the semi-formal peer review process.”

Doctors can play a crucial role in speeding up the content improvement process, which will have beneficial far-reaching effects in third-world countries where Wikipedia is often the only medical resource available. The project works with a group called Translators Without Borders, who work to simplify medical information and translate it into other languages.

Heilman is issuing a call to all physicians to fix errors and inaccuracies whenever they run across them on Wikipedia. “We know that the vast majority of physicians are using Wikipedia. If you’re a physician and you’re using Wikipedia and you come across spelling errors, grammar errors, obvious medical errors, you can hit the edit button and you can fix the content. Wikipedia recently introduced a new method of editing which is like using a word processor – if you can use Word, then you can easily use the edit functions.”

Wikipedia is also an opportunity to interact with an international group of physicians and healthcare researchers who share these idealistic goals, he says. “We’re working with the National Institute of Health, the Cochrane Collaboration, the University of California at San Francisco, the Mount Sinai medical school, and many other organizations.”

Doctors who want to find out how to participate can start by visiting the discussion site. “If you’re interested in getting involved, a great place to start is to look at the Wiki Project Medicine page. You can drop us a note on the Talk page tab.”

For more information, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Medicine.

Posted July 31
, 2014