Yesterday I read a research report in the Journal of the Medical Library Association that reminded me to be cautious when using Wikipedia articles for health care information. The authors of the report are two Pharm D’s and a Pharm D candidate from Midwestern University in Chicago. They analyzed drug information on Wikipedia for 21 different medications and compared it to information from a subscription drug information database. I thought that the most interesting part of the analysis had to do with the drug safety information. The twenty one drugs chosen for analysis all had recent safety alerts, but these safety alerts were not all included in the Wikipedia articles. All the medications analyzed had reported a specific Drug Safety Communication resulting in a clinically significant label change or a new warning or recommendation to consumers or health care providers within the previous 7 months. The research report found that 4 of the Wikipedia articles were missing critical information about new contraindications, precautions, or side effects that were being added to the FDA-approved drug labeling. Additionally, 7 of the Wikipedia articles were missing new early warning information about potential side effects or information about the potential for “look-alike, sound-alike” name confusion. One example given was for codeine. The Wikipedia article recommended “cautious use” in tonsillectomy patients, rather than “total avoidance” from an updated FDA MedWatch alert that was not included in the article.
Another part of the analysis that I found interesting were the sources cited by the Wikipedia articles. Although these Wikipedia articles cited many journal articles, they also cited more news articles and commercial websites than the subscription database, and were less likely to cite evidence-based guidelines.
The authors of this study make some good points about the usefulness of Wikipedia when they mention that Wikipedia can often be used as a “jumping off” point for research and as a way to see what the public is reading. Students and healthcare practitioners can follow the links in Wikipedia articles to begin their analysis of some of the primary sources available. Reading Wikipedia articles also will give them a better understanding of what their patients are likely to be seeing.
If health science students and healthcare practitioners are using Wikipedia for drug information, it would be wise to check an additional source for any safety updates. The article recommends the US Government’s Food and Drug Administration’s MedWatch website, which is freely available on the internet. Touro students and faculty can also use Access Medicine a comprehensive online medical resource and Dynamed, an evidence-based clinical reference tool. Both are subscription databases available through Touro Libraries that include drug information.
I encourage you to read the article and let me know what you think. It is available free in Pub Med Central and several of Touro Libraries subscription databases.
Koppen, L., Phillips, J., & Papageorgiou, R. (2015). Analysis of reference sources used in drug-related Wikipedia articles. Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, 103(3), 140–144. doi:10.3163/1536-5050.103.3.007