Wikipedia is now the number one medical resource for both doctors and their patients, according to a 2014 report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.
But despite the site’s ubiquity, it’s far from perfect. One study from the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found errors in nine out of 10 Wikipedia articles on the most-costly diseases in the United States.
Dr. Amin Azzam wants to change that. A clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley campuses, Dr. Azzam runs an elective class that guides fourth-year medical students as they edit Wikipedia’s health articles. The students work to correct errors, improve citations, and simplify medical jargon. Healthline spoke with Dr. Azzam to find out how it works.
Heathline: What sparked this idea?
Dr. Azzam: Oftentimes, if we’re smart enough to pay attention to people that are younger than us, they’ll help us remain relevant in today’s world. I’m thrilled to acknowledge that the idea came from one of my students rather than me: Mike Turken, who was at the time a med student here at UCSF.
Mike told me that all medical students go to Wikipedia first to look up things, even though all their faculty members pooh-pooh Wikipedia. He suggested the idea that med students could edit Wikipedia to make it a better resource.
Healthline: How did you react?
Dr. Azzam: I, like many physicians of my generation and older generations, was totally skeptical of the idea at first. But Mike convinced me enough that in January of 2013, we invited Dr. James Heilman from the University of British Columbia down to UCSF. James is heavily involved with an effort called WikiProject Medicine. He came down to run a series of talks to convince the skeptical UCSF community that there would be some value in contributing to Wikipedia.
I sat in the audience and listened, and basically got turned around 100 percent. I was convinced that not only was there value in contributing to Wikipedia, but that it was more valuable than anything else we were doing.
Healthline: What changed your mind?
There are a number of studies that have confirmed what we already knew, that 94 percent of medical students admit to using Wikipedia. I decided that it’s much better to dialogue about this instead of pretending in shame that it doesn’t exist.
Anyone can edit anything on Wikipedia. It’s what I call the double-edged sword of Wikipedia. Because anyone can edit, it could theoretically be the quintessential crowd-sourced repository of all the world’s knowledge.
But also because anyone can edit Wikipedia, there’s always the risk and worry about whether that information is robust. So I decided to start this elective to improve the health information on Wikipedia.
Healthline: How does the elective work?
Dr. Azzam: The elective is for fourth-year med students, and we scheduled it in the heart of the interview season, because that’s when med students need a lot of flexibility. Editing Wikipedia is something they can do literally on the plane as they’re flying to their interviews.
Students get two full days of face-to-face instruction, and then I cut them loose. We’ve done three cycles of the rotation and we plan to continue next fall.
Healthline: How do your students decide which pages to edit?
Dr. Azzam: On Wikipedia, there are communities of people who are fascinated by a particular topic and want to improve the content for that topic. WikiProject Medicine is the community of volunteers who want to improve medical information on Wikipedia.
They cataloged all the medical information on Wikipedia: roughly 23,000 pages. Then, they ranked those 23,000 pages by importance. They did that by merging two data sources. One is the number of eyeballs and clicks on a page, and the other is the global burden of disease.
Using that data, WikiProject Medicine came up with the top 100 most important topics that they believe need to be edited first. Wikipedia also has quality metrics for all of their articles, and of those top 100 articles, many of them are quite low quality.
I don’t choose what topics my students need to work on, but I expose them to this concept and I say to them, if you want to make a bigger difference in the world, I suggest that you choose one of these top 100. Some of them follow my advice, but not all of them: some have chosen topics that are rarely viewed but they are passionate about.
Healthline: What’s the impact of the project?
Dr. Azzam: The vast majority of the Internet is in English. But of course, the vast majority of the world speaks other languages. WikiProject medicine works with an organization called Translators without Borders. Once the articles reach a certain quality, Translators without Borders works to translate them to the world’s most-spoken languages. The idea is to reduce the global burden of disease.
The vast majority of the world now has access to the Internet through cell phones. But in the developing world, cell phone carriers have data access charges that can be cost-prohibitive for the world’s poor populations. So Wikipedia partners with cell phone companies throughout the world through an initiative called Wikipedia Zero. With the help of this project, more than 450 million people on our planet now have access to Wikipedia.
When you string all that together, my students are continuing to providing high-quality medical information to the world’s population, in the language of their preference, in the way they already access the internet, and now for free. What could possibly be bigger in these students’ lives than that?
Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.