Why Medical Schools Add Wikipedia Editing to Curriculum

Medical educators, students and professionals share their vision for making online medical information more accurate.

by / October 9, 2013 0
U.S. Air Force surgeons Dr. Patrick Miller (left), Dr. Michael Hughes (right), and surgical technician SrA Ray Wilson from the 379th Expeditionary Medical Squadron, repair the ruptured achilles tendon of a servicemember on March 11, 2003. The doctors are performing this surgery at a field hospital in a forward-deployed location. Ssgt. Derrick C. Goode, U.S. Air Force, via Wikimedia Commons

A new university elective could help medical students provide accurate health information to people around the world.

In "Expanding WikiProject Medicine," fourth-year students at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine will edit health articles on Wikipedia this semester. And their class is one of the few in the U.S. that is updating medical Wikipedia pages.

The month-long class starts in November, but it's part of a broader move in the medical community to share valuable research and raise the quality of Wikipedia health articles.

Why medical students and doctors edit Wikipedia

Throughout their third year of medical school, students find research about illnesses they encounter and spend a few hours creating presentations and handouts about it for their medical team. But it doesn't get shared more broadly, said Michael Turken, a former student at UCSF who is now in his first year as an internal medicine resident at Stanford Hospital and Clinics.

"All of your work has gone to sort of educating two or three other people on your team, but a lot of that work doesn't end up surviving much beyond the small group," Turken said.

Between his third and fourth year of medical school, a friend asked him a question about HIV, and when Turken clicked on a Wikipedia article about it, he found that the timeframe listed in the article was inaccurate. He looked up research that provided another answer and edited the page. Then he decided to propose an elective class that would allow medical students to make health articles on Wikipedia more accurate.

"It just seemed like sort of an obvious way to marry the work that medical students are already doing with a resource that everyone uses, but that isn't always up to date and isn't always accurate," said Turken, who continues to edit articles.

Turken explained his idea to Amin Azzam, health sciences associate clinical professor at the medical school at UCSF. While Azzam wasn't so sure about the idea at first, he's now scheduled to teach the class.

"When we initially started talking about it, I was quite skeptical because like many faculty members in academia, we were taught to believe that Wikipedia was an inaccurate and unreliable source of information," Azzam said.

But if health professionals start editing these articles, medical information on Wikipedia could become more reliable, Azzam said. Many articles contain inaccuracies now because few medical professionals edit them, and in controversial areas of medicine, some people make edits that are biased, he said.

A number of doctors are already editing articles and working together on WikiProject Medicine, a collaborative project that strives to make medical information more "reliable, neutral and accessible." Dr. James Heilman started participating in the project after he saw how inaccurate some of the Wikipedia articles were.

"Back in 2007-2008, I was working on night shift," said Heilman. "I was looking around the Internet, and I came across this really horribly written article. Then I noticed an edit button, and I realized I could fix the article in question."

Nearly a quarter of a million people read that article each month, and the misinformation it contained generated a public health issue, Heilman said. He believes that physicians have an obligation to make high-quality health care information available to their patients.

Physicians, medical educators and students should update medical information online, said Robert Badgett, a professor at the Kansas University School of Medicine — Wichita. He would like to see physicians earn continuing medical education credits for their work on Wikipedia articles.

During the same time period that Heilman realized he could edit Wikipedia pages, Badgett started a fourth-year elective class for medical students when he was at the University of Texas — San Antonio School of Medicine. By having students make public edits instead of private presentations, he put more pressure on them to turn in high-quality work and evaluate new research.

"If you go to all this effort to learn something, then why don't you share it with someone else?" Badgett asked.

In this class, he created a template for research citations that students used to edit health Wikipedia articles.

When he switched universities, he didn't restart the class because it wasn't part of his new role. But the UCSF class has inspired him to try to restart it in Kansas.

The potential impact of editing medical articles

These types of classes provide medical students with an opportunity to hone their communication skills with patients -- a skill that medical schools don't emphasize as much, Azzam said. Students learn medical jargon and complex ideas, but don't practice boiling down information into simple language, Heilman said.

"A lot of people start medical school speaking English and then finish medical school speaking medicalese," Heilman said, "And then when patients go to see their doctors, their doctors have forgotten how to communicate in language that they understand."

Physicians need to be bilingual in both doctor language and real English, Azzam said. By writing for the general public, he hopes that students will become more effective communicators when they talk with patients one-on-one.

If this class is successful as a fourth year elective, Azzam and Turken would like to see it move into the curriculum earlier in medical school. And they hope the idea spreads to other medical schools. Turken has been telling medical educators at other universities about it and would like to get doctors at his hospital involved in editing articles as well.

These professors and practitioners see opportunities to collaborate across medical schools on editing projects, though the methodology has yet to be worked out, Badgett said. He is interested in identifying types of edits that would qualify for credit and figuring out how to handle edits that involve reorganizing pages rather than adding new information.

This type of work could affect the quality of global medical information as well. WikiProject Medicine and its contributors — including the UCSF students — are working on updates to the most viewed medical articles. Once these articles are edited, they will be translated into 50 languages through a partnership with Wikimedia Canada and Translators Without Borders.

"Our students have a chance not just to see the individual patients they see," Azzam said, "but now you have a chance to be making a much bigger social and public health impact by contributing to where the world reads and gets information."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.