Wikipedia Reality Check: Use Medical and Health Information at Your Own Risk

June 2, 2015

Fail With Wikipedia: Medical and Health Information

coofdy / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

Do you use Wikipedia? We all do. But if you're relying on it too much, you are limiting yourself to very general and sometimes inaccurate information.

If you want to learn medical terminology or gain a basic understanding of a scientific concept, by all means, turn to Wikipedia. But if you want to really dig deep into a subject, you had better turn to more reputable sources. This is especially true for academic research.

A certain percentage of Wikipedia's information is assumed to be inaccurate, incomplete or outdated. The mega-site openly states, "Some articles may contain errors, please do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions."

So, if you'd like to learn how to use Wikipedia to its fullest potential, there are a few things you need to understand first:

Google Loves Wikipedia

In Google, at least one Wikipedia page will be displayed among the first ten results in a staggering 84% of all medically-related search queries. Other major search engines share a similar affection for the online encyclopedia.

Why? There are three things that search engines absolutely love about websites:

  1. A lot of content (huge number of indexed pages)

  2. Well-organized internal structure (simple, easy to navigate)

  3. Frequent new entries and updates

Needless to say, Wikipedia has all of this covered. In fact, it does it so well that Google would prioritize it over almost every other health-related domain.

Even if the content is not of a superior quality, pages from Wikipedia still easily outrank others because the website as a whole is so much bigger and more active than regular sites.

Search engines evaluate online pages in a different way from real people. Google might be good at handling your search query, but it’s important to note that it is somewhat biased towards Wikipedia, or any domain that is highly compatible with search algorithms.

Expert Tip: Be sure to screen the search results for other useful pages and don’t limit yourself to only the first page.

Reputable Source for Detailed Medical and Health Information? Think Again!

Most health and medical articles on Wikipedia are written for the general public and this is in no way a bad thing. The information itself is usually based on academic papers, research and scientific books.

However, remember that the actual pages on Wikipedia are not a product of scientific work; they are mere summaries or interpretations of official studies and findings.

Most health professionals use Wikipedia as a source for open questions or background research, not as a primary source of reputable information.

Solving a clinical question requires more in-depth research and involves cross examination of various proven sources to help draw reliable conclusions.

This video from Turnitin talks more about the importance of developing your own ideas to strengthen your argument:

Another thing worth noting is that medicine and allied healthcare are not completely global. Different countries — even if they are English-speaking — use different values and terms for the same thing, or have different structures for healthcare systems.

Expert Tip: Whether you’re a medical student, graduate, healthcare professional or simply involved in a healthcare certification program, be sure to verify your resources.

Do Not Rely on Wikipedia Alone

There are several reasons why people should use caution when citing Wikipedia:

  • You don't know who wrote the page and therefore cannot trust its accuracy

  • There is a lack of expert authors, depth of coverage, and diversity of editors

  • Malicious or false entries could go unnoticed for a long time

  • Editors have the authority to silence contributors, even if the presented medical and health information is accurate

  • Wikipedia is only one source among many

Expert Tip: If the purpose of your search is strictly professional or scientific, use Wikipedia only as a starting point for your research.

If Wikipedia Was A Person

Learn How to Extract Accurate Information

The internet provides us with easy access to unlimited knowledge, but we still need to develop the skills to properly evaluate it. It is important to learn how to search for relevant information, rate its worth, and then extract any golden nuggets.

Expert Tip: If you’d like to use Wikipedia to its fullest potential, go through the reference links at the bottom of each page — they expand your search, in an even more targeted way than Google does at the beginning.

Just remember, this popular online encyclopedia is only the start.

What are your favorite sources for medical and health knowledge? Do you trust Wikipedia? We’d love to hear back from you!