Improving the Quality of Wikipedia’s Health Information

NYSHealth awarded Consumers Union a grant to support a collaborative with New York State medical schools to implement the Wikipedia Education Program.

Grantee Name

Consumers Union of United States, Inc.

Funding Area

Special Projects Fund

Publication Date

June 2021

Grant Amount

$176,670

Grant Date:

January 2015- December 2016

Special Projects Fund

Wikipedia is among the leading sources of medical information for medical professionals and health care consumers alike.

It is a free, online, multilingual encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone. It contains 27,000 health care articles that typically have had much higher placement in online search results than other sources of health information, including the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, MedlinePlus, e-Medicine.com, and all .gov domains. Medical professionals often consult Wikipedia to get a quick take on an issue they may not be familiar with or as a springboard to more authoritative sources in the footnotes. A 2014 survey found that 50% of doctors report using Wikipedia.

Recognizing the platform’s popularity, Consumers Union proposed a project to create and implement a model that trains medical students to fact check and incorporate evidence-based health information throughout Wikipedia’s health-related pages. Although physicians and medical students are encouraged to publish in traditional sources of medical content (e.g., textbooks and journals), it is not common for them to contribute to open- or crowd-sourced resources like Wikipedia. The goal of this project was to improve the quality and accuracy of Wikipedia’s health information by creating a for-credit training program at 8 of New York State’s 15 medical schools that would recruit medical students and train them to use, edit, and contribute to Wikipedia’s health pages.

In 2014, NYSHealth awarded Consumers Union a grant to support a two-year collaborative with New York State medical schools to implement the Wikipedia Education Program.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

  • Recruited participants from New York medical schools for Wikipedia events. Six medical schools—short of the eight schools targeted for engagement—hosted Wikipedia editing events for medical students: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Columbia University, SUNY Upstate, Stony Brook University, Rockefeller University, and University of Buffalo.
  • Piloted the Wikipedia Education Program at the six schools and published health content relevant to a New York audience. The program had 175 participants make 2,630 edits to 477 Wikipedia articles. Their submissions were viewed nearly 177 million times.
    • The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai had a particularly strong program, where students piloted an elective course for introducing Wikipedia to medical students. Fourteen medical students edited 36 Wikipedia health articles, which between January and March 2015 were viewed 711,000 times. The students communicated online with a crowdsourced community of Wikipedia editors for comments and criticism about the health information shared on the platform.
  • Presented at conferences about online medical information and appropriate use. Consumers Union had originally planned to convene a conference on these topics, but faced challenges in recruiting ideal participants and decided to conduct presentations and workshops at existing health and medical conferences instead.

Soon after we awarded this grant, NYSHealth Senior Program Officer Brian Byrd wrote about our grantmaking strategy for this project in a Health Affairs GrantWatch blog. When the project began, the information contained on Wikipedia was considered unreliable, and was even described as a “wild west” of information resources. Consumers Union was the first entity to launch a concerted effort to make Wikipedia’s content more accurate and reliable. These efforts did not go unnoticed and by 2017, a range of medical schools and other academic entities launched similar initiatives. Consequently, Consumers Union no longer had to shoulder the full burden of sustaining the project’s goals, which would now be shared by nonprofit organizations such as the Wikipedia Foundation.

In the course of this project, Consumer Union developed, used, and published an outreach plan and curriculum now being used by other groups and organizations who share the Wikipedia project’s mission. Although it fell short of recruiting eight New York-based medical schools for participation, the project may have been ahead of its time—in 2015, the impact of misinformation did not have the far-reaching consequences that it does today. Since this project’s launch, efforts to monitor, review, and correct content on Web-based resources, including Wikipedia’s health content, have grown exponentially.

Co-Funding and Additional Funds Leveraged: N/A