Wikipedia is the leading single source of healthcare information for patients and providers, according to a report on online engagement by IMS Health. According to the study, 50% of surveyed physicians who use the internet have consulted Wikipedia for information—especially on specific conditions. That may explain another finding: That more serious, less common diseases are actually the most frequently searched for by English-speaking Wikipedia users.
While tuberculosis isn’t rare—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 3.2 cases per 100,000 in the US in 2012, and UK agencies reported 13.9 per 100,000—it’s certainly not the most common health concern of the average English-speaking internet user. Acne, for example, was 100th in the list for the year, drawing only 1.3 million page visits—and affects 80-90% of all teenagers. The higher searches for more serious, less common ailments, the authors suggest, could be because those are the ones that patients are less likely to have first-hand knowledge of. In other words, if acne is bothering you, you’ve probably got a few friends (and, hopefully, a dermatologist) who knows what’s what. If you find yourself in need of a tuberculosis test or experiencing symptoms of gout, you might be a bit more lost.
By looking at trends in drug sales—both for new prescriptions, and for continuing patients—the authors of the report also found indications that people use Wikipedia to get informed about their drug and treatment regimens. But just when they decide to do their research could depend on age: Young patients—those around 39, and younger—tended to research illnesses and drugs on Wikipedia before they started a course of treatment. Patients a decade older were likely to search their treatment right around when it was prescribed. By around age 54, though, patients were looking up their prescriptions well after they were first prescribed. The authors of the report believe this may be because of family members and caregivers searching on the behalf of the elderly, once they become aware of the patient’s new treatment or side effects it may be causing. Younger patients, this data suggests, may be more likely to weigh possible treatment options based on information found online.