Dr. Wikipedia: The 'Double-Edged Sword' Of Crowd-Sourced Medicine

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Wikipedia has become a go-to source for definitions, celebrity facts, and now, medical information. A study by the IMS Health Institute published in January names Wikipedia as the "single leading source" of health care information for both patients and health care professionals.

Unfortunately, some of that information is wrong.

"I think that's the double-edged sword of Wikipedia," Dr. Amin Azzam tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Because anyone can edit, we don't necessarily know the expertise of the people doing the editing. One the other hand, the reason it's so popular is because everyone can contribute."

Azzam is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He teaches a course that encourages fourth-year medical students to use their knowledge to improve Wikipedia, one article at a time. The syllabus is, of course, posted on Wikipedia.

Students choose one article from the top 100 most-read medical articles on the site and work on it throughout the course. For example, one of his students updated information about how long an HIV test can present a false negative result.

Azzam says there's a lot of room for improving the quality of Wikipedia in the medical domain because doctors are late-comers to the resource.

"In the health care community, we're used to learning from wisened professors above us," says Azzam. "My generation absolutely pooh-poohed Wikipedia, and now I'm finding that all my med students, they use that first because it's written in a way that they understand as they are learning to become doctors."

Azzam says it was fun watching the students work and realize that editing the articles is harder than they expected. They have to make decisions about how to order symptoms and how to remove jargon to make the information understandable.

"It's not just adding references and not just improving the gaps," Azzam says, "but thinking about how to make it more readable and more digestible for the people that are reading Wikipedia."

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