Digital Life
5:34 pm
Sat February 8, 2014

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

Originally published on Mon February 10, 2014 12:17 pm

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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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

It's hard for me to imagine life without Wikipedia, and I'm not alone. It's the sixth most visited Web page on the planet. Along with everything else, Wikipedia has become a major source of medical information. A recent study names Wikipedia as the single leading source of health care information for both patients and their doctors. Unfortunately, some of that information is wrong.

Dr. Amin Azzam is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He teaches a course that encourages medical students to use their knowledge to improve Wikipedia, one article at a time.

DR. AMIN AZZAM: I think it's important to acknowledge that there's a lot of information on Wikipedia in the medical space or the health care space that is currently still low quality, lots of gaps in the information or lots of sentences that are unreferenced. So we don't know if somebody has just merely put that there because they believe it or because there's scientific knowledge behind it. So there is a lot of room for improving the quality of Wikipedia, particularly in the medical domain. We're sort of latecomers to Wikipedia.

RATH: Why do you think that is?

AZZAM: I think it's because in the health care community, we're used to learning from wisened professors above us. And those generations above us didn't look favorably on Wikipedia or social media or even the concept of crowdsourcing as the wisdom of the crowd. So my generation absolutely pooh-poohed Wikipedia, and now I'm finding that all my med students go there first because it's written in a way they can understand as they are learning to become doctors.

RATH: What were some of the examples of bad medical information on Wikipedia?

AZZAM: This came from one of my former medical students who first adjusted the idea to me over a coffee. An example that he used was that a friend asked him about when you go and get an HIV test, how long could it possibly be a false negative result? And so he looked that up on Wikipedia and saw a number, and then looked it up in a more reliable medical source and saw that those two were not in agreement with one another. So he went and fixed it on Wikipedia immediately. So that's an example of where the quality of information that is or was then on Wikipedia was inaccurate.

RATH: Now, this being Wikipedia, isn't the problem, though, that just any old person could come on then and take down that good information and put up bad stuff?

AZZAM: That's true, and I think that's the double-edged sword of Wikipedia. Because anyone can edit, we don't necessarily know the expertise of the people doing the editing. On the other hand, the reason it's so popular is because everyone can contribute. What I think we're doing is bringing medical students who have a certain amount of expertise to the table to be adding to the wisdom of the crowd, if you will.

They have certain (unintelligible) knowledge so they're reading other reliable sources and adding information that's missing from the Wikipedia pages. But, for example, if we think about a diagnosis that has a list of symptoms, when the students would write those symptoms, they may add the missing symptoms. Then they had to think, well, what order shall we put the symptoms list - should it be most serious first, should it be alphabetical, should it be most common first?

And those kinds of decision-making things are where their emerging expertise, I think, adds value. It's not just adding references and not just improving the gaps, but thinking about how to make it more readable and more digestible for the people that are reading Wikipedia.

RATH: That's Dr. Amin Azzam. He teaches a course at the University of California, San Francisco, that enlists knowledge of medical students to improve Wikipedia. Amin, thank you.

AZZAM: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.