Wikipedia Your Symptoms, And You'll Get The Wrong Answer 9 Out Of 10 Times

The next time you want to self-diagnose the weird blemish on your forehead or the cough you can't get rid of, don't Wikipedia it. A new study compared the open-source online encyclopedia's entries on 10 health conditions with peer-review medical literature and found that nine of 10 health-based Wikipedia articles contained significant errors. What's even more alarming is that past studies have found that 70 percent of physicians use Wikipedia for reference. And if you think about it, you probably have too. So here's why you should stop.

Since Wikipedia launched in 2001, it has become the go-to reference site for every subject thinkable (remember that time you wanted to learn more about the Spangled Cotinga and Wikipediaed it?). What catapulted Wikipedia into popularity and prominence is its signature collaborative, open-access design. Any user can contribute, edit, and delete information and entries. While this collaborative nature may make the online encyclopedia wildly popular, it's also the principal flaw. Much of the information on Wikipedia remains unverified, and when it pertains to a subject as serious as, say, lung cancer, factual accuracy is crucial.

So imagine the shock when investigators analyzed the Wikipedia entries for common medical conditions and found that the majority of them contained assertions that weren't backed by reliable sources. The study looked at the 10 most costly conditions in the U.S. (in terms of private and public spending) and assigned two independent reviewers to each entry. Each reviewer was either an internal medicine resident or rotating intern, as a medical background was required to interpret and analyze the information.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Each reviewer closely examined the Wikipedia entries by identifying every assertion (both implications and statements of fact) and fact-checking them using peer-reviewed sources published within the last five years. The reviewers then noted each concordance and discordance between the Wikipedia articles and the medical literature. The final results revealed that entries for nine of the 10 conditions contained major discordance.

Lead study author Dr Robert Hasty, of Campbell University's Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine in North Carolina, said in a video made by the university:

I think from a patient perspective, they should look at Wikipedia as a resource, but they should also consult their physician, as well as looking at other websites, which includes the Centers For Disease Control [and Prevention], the Department of Health and Human Services, and peer-reviewed references. For physicians, I think we obviously need to make sure that we are not using Wikipedia for authoritative guidance, and we should be part of the community making sure the Wikipedia articles that our patients are reading are the highest quality and the most accurate, and engage ourselves in the editing process.

Issues with the open-access nature and the reliability of its information have always plagued Wikipedia, but Wikimedia UK representative Stevie Benton told the BBC that the organization is implementing a "number of initiatives" in order to improve the articles, "especially in relation to health and medicine."

In the meantime, you should probably avoid Wikipedia-ing these nine conditions the research found had medically flawed pages...

  1. Coronary artery disease
  2. Lung cancer
  3. Major depressive disorder
  4. Osteoarthritis
  5. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  6. Hypertension
  7. Diabetes mellitus
  8. Back pain
  9. Hyperlipidemia

In conclusion, for any medical questions or concerns, always consult your doctor over a user-contributed online reference site. (Let's just hope he's not getting his information from Wikipedia.)