Why Wikipedia is a public health issue

Could the FDA, Wikipedia and drug manufacturers work together to solve this problem?

Medical articles on Wikipedia receive about 150 million page views per month, and nearly 50% of practicing physicians use Wikipedia as an information source for providing medical care. And while Wikipedia itself has disclaimers that information included on its site may be inaccurate, that doesn’t stop consumers and medical professionals alike from using it as a health source that they consider credible. What should we do? Let’s take accountability to fix this public health issue.

I recently spoke with a colleague whose doctor’s medical assistant provided her with incorrect information and referenced Wikipedia as the source. Thankfully, she knew enough to go online herself (not to Wikipedia!) and learned the information was wrong. But, that’s not the case for many consumers. They trust their medical professionals without question, and believe that everything they read online is fact, especially from such a popular site as Wikipedia—never realizing that the information might be inaccurate and sometimes downright dangerous.

Those in the health care industry, especially drug manufacturers and the FDA, have a public health responsibility to play a role in helping to fix the inaccuracies and incomplete information on Wikipedia. Sure, there are some challenges—like the perception that the drug manufacturers have a conflict of interest or that getting anywhere near user-generated content will result in a visit from the FDA, but we should work toward common sense solutions.

Drug manufacturers must be careful in how they edit content on Wikipedia to avoid having a conflict of interest. They should document and notify Wikipedia when content is inaccurate or incomplete. In fact, each Wikipedia article has a discussion area where a company representative could post the suggested changes or additions, leaving the broader community to determine if it should or shouldn’t be included. No, this isn’t a perfect solution, but at least the manufacturers would be doing their part to try to fix the inaccuracies. And the FDA should either establish clear guidelines around user-generated content, or let manufacturers do what’s right in trying to correct inaccurate information, without fear of repercussions.

Wikipedia has a role to play, as well. It needs to embrace drug manufacturers and assume they have the right intent in ensuring accurate information is available to the public. Some might argue that drug manufacturers in the past have been caught trying to game the system by removing damaging information about their products. But the beauty of Wikipedia is that the community will find and fix those self-serving changes.

Let’s step up and make some real and meaningful changes soon. The public’s health depends on it.

Beth Bengtson is principal at Hale Advisors, a health care marketing and communications company. You can email her at beth@haleadvisors.com or follower her on Twitter at @b2engt.

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