Seeking Health Information Online: Does Wikipedia Matter?

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Laurent MR, Vickers TJ. Seeking Health Information Online: Does Wikipedia Matter? JAMIA 2009;16:471-479

Both the lay public and medical providers find that information retrieval is increasingly online. How and how often the public searches for health information online, and what effect this has on the patient – physician relationship is unknown. Although you should probably never site Wikipedia in an academic paper, studies show that the accuracy of information on Wikipedia is similar to that of old fashioned paper based encyclopedias. Wikipedia is an open – access online encyclopedia that encourages input from its users. Wikipedia content may be accurate and relevant for historical information, but the authors sought to understand the significance of Wikipedia as a source of online health information. The authors premise was that if Wikipedia is significant, than traffic to Wikipedia should coincide with epidemiological trends and news of emerging health trends. Their interesting method was based on search optimization using keywords from MedlinePlus, NHS Direct and the National Organization of Rare Diseases. The authors ranked the cumulative incidence and average position of Wikipedia compared to other web sites that ranked in the top 20 results on internet search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN. The authors also wanted to know if article quality influenced the rankings.

The authors concluded that based on search engine ranking and page view statistics, Wikipedia is a prominent form of online health information compared to other providers. They came to this conclusion based on the finding that Wikipedia surpassed both MedlinePlus and NHS Direct and ranked higher in quality articles.

A number of strengths and limitations are inherent in the authors approach. The statistical software package chosen allowed the searching of a large number of keywords simultaneously on multiple search engines thereby providing a more robust search experience with less user bias. The unfortunate main disadvantage is that the keywords were not weighted in importance. The authors make the point that common diseases like diabetes mellitus were weighted equally to more obscure states such as melamine poisoning. Also, the quality of Wikipedia articles was determined by the authors submitting the content. It would be more interesting to rank the quality of the Wikipedia content based on its source references and when appropriate, an expert panel ranking of the quality of the postings.

In summary, this study supports the relevance and significance of Wikipedia. The authors make the point that virtually no research has been performed regarding Wikipedia as a source of health information. Additional research areas should ask what effect Wikipedia searches have on the patient – physician relationship and also patient utilization of urgent and emergency healthcare based on search results.