British Columbia

Wikipedia's medical errors and one doctor's fight to correct them

Dr. James Heilman says medical students and physicians use Wikipedia entries that may not be completely accurate. So he's part of a global effort to improve the most popular entries.

Dr. James Heilman says medical students and physicians are using potentially inaccurate Wikipedia entries

Dr. James Heilman works as an emergency room physician in Cranbrook, B.C. In his free time, he corrects inaccuracies in 200 popular Wikipedia articles on subjects including cancer, diarrhea and hepatitis A. (James Heilman)

You can't always believe what you read on the internet. That is particularly true when it comes to medical information in the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia, Wikipedia

But one doctor is on a mission to change that.

Dr. James Heilman works as an emergency room physician in Cranbrook, B.C., and is also a clinical instructor at UBC.

He's just returned from Wikimania, a Wikipedia conference that was held in London this August, where he encouraged his colleagues to help edit and improve the accuracy of medical information found on Wikipedia.

"We know Wikipedia isn't perfect. We know it can be better," says Heilman.

Studies have shown that, on average, at least 50 per cent - and in one case 100 per cent - of doctors use Wikipedia in their practice. Heilman says the website is an easy way for physicians to jog their memories.

"Many people have the misconception that all doctors have photographic memories — we don't. We forget stuff just like everyone else."

For medical students, Wikipedia is their second most used information source — something Heilman has noticed among his UBC students.

Despite the potential for misinformation, the doctor says the public doesn't need to be worried. 

"Many students are using this as a starting point. The further along they are in their education, the more likely they are to use multiple sources."

Medical content viewed 5 billion times

Heilman believes his colleagues and medical students are turning to Wikipedia for the same reason as many members of the public — the information is easily accessible and presented in plain language.

In 2013, medical-related content on Wikipedia was accessed five billion times. Heilman encourages patients to use the website, as long as they always question what they read and use multiple sources.

"The internet is an opportunity for patients to get involved in their own care," said Heilman. "They can read about the disease they have to a greater extent than what their doctor was able to tell them in a set amount of time."

The physician has been advocating for improvements to Wikipedia entries since 2011 and is collaborating with the National Institutes of Health, the Cochrane Collaboration and Cancer Research UK through WikiProject Medicine.

Their goal is to improve the accuracy and simplicity of the top 200 medical articles on Wikipedia. Articles on cancer, diarrhea and hepatitis A are some of the articles that have already been reviewed and approved.

In his fight to bring high quality health information to people around the world, Heilman has one more passion — translating those top 200 articles from English into Wikipedia's 286 other languages.

Heilman says he is collaborating with Translators Without Borders, a group which links translators around the world with NGOs working in health, nutrition and education.

"We see Wikipedia as one way to get high quality health-care information out to people who need it," says Heilman.

"We're creating some of the first medical content to ever exist in some languages."

On mobile? Click here to see a Q & A with Dr. James Heilman about Wikipedia