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America’s future doctors are starting their careers by saving Wikipedia

January 28, 2014
January 28, 2014

It’s a bit frightening that Wikipedia is the number one source of health information on the internet, but don’t fret. More and more of that information will be coming straight from doctors. Dr. Amin Azzam, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, is doing his best to get as many doctors on Wikipedia as possible—and he’s doing it by catching them young.

In November, Azzam launched an elective for fourth-year medical students that consists solely of editing Wikipedia articles for accuracy. When one of his former students came up with the concept over a year ago, Azzam was skeptical. But then, he told Quartz, he saw the wisdom of the idea. “A lot of professors have done it,” he said. “I’m not all that innovative. But it hasn’t been done at the medical school level, at least not in the US.” And since medical school is structured from month to month, with fourth years requiring time and flexibility to find their internships for the following year, Azzam realized it was a perfect fit. “It’s a travel-friendly elective while they’re interviewing,” he said. “You can literally do it anywhere.”

The pilot run, he said, was a great success. Five students (believe it or not, that’s a lot of students for a fourth-year elective in medical school, according to Azzam), after being oriented to the structure and editing process of the site, spent their month targeting articles that required improvement: the most read and those with the greatest potential health impact. They put their medical knowledge—after all, Azzam said, the students were less than six months away from being doctors—to good use. Most of Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate, Azzam said, because it uses the “wisdom of the crowd” to vet information. But medical pages have catching up to do. “Medical professionals haven’t been editing Wikipedia,” he said. “In fact, we were told not to go near it.” This anti-crowdsourcing bias has kept doctors from contributing to the site’s accuracy until now, Azzam said. But current students are more open to the value of editing the articles.

The endeavor will get a boost from two other initiatives: Wikipedia Zero, which aims to provide mobile access to the site without any data charges (specifically in developing countries), and Translators Without Borders, which plans to translate the 100 most widely read health articles on Wikipedia into 100 languages. “Now you’ll have high quality medical information available to the world’s poor, in the language of their choosing, in the way they already access the internet, and for free. That’s huge.”

Azzam is holding his class again in the spring—and he feels it’s part of a growing shift in the medical community’s level of engagement. Azzam’s students have promised that they’ll continue to edit Wikipedia’s health articles, but since the end of the course in mid-December, only one has. Azzam says they’re “busy figuring out where they’ll be starting their careers, so we’ll have to give them some time.” The next generation of doctors may be kinder to Dr. Wikipedia, but even the youngest doctors may be too busy to give away all of their prized advice.

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