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Wikipedia cancer info. passes muster

Admit it: When you want to bone up on a subject fast, you sometimes consult Wikipedia. I know I do. (I never use it as a source when reporting, of course.)

But when the subject you're boning up on is cancer, the stakes are higher than when you're just checking on, say, Lady Gaga. Under those circumstances, can Wikipedia -- written and edited by anonymous, non-expert people from all over the world -- be trusted?

That's what Yaacov Lawrence of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson (in Philadelphia) set out to determine. He and his team compared Wikipedia entries for 10 forms of cancer to those found on the peer-reviewed patient-information section of National Cancer Institute's online Physician Data Query (PDQ). The researchers assessed the entries for accuracy, comparing the information they presented to that found in standard oncology textbooks, and readability. Lawrence presented his findings at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in Chicago Tuesday.

Turns out the Wikipedia entries held up well in the accuracy department; less than 2 percent of the material found in either the wiki entries or the PDQ differed substantially from that found in the textbooks.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the Wikipedia entries were much harder to read than the PDQ ones. The team determined that the wikis were written using language suited to a college student, while the language in the PDQs was suitable for a ninth-grader. That could make a big difference in a cancer patient's ability to learn about his or her disease. Lawrence says studying how that plays out in real life is the next step.

What Web sites do you turn to for medical information? Have you used Wikipedia to learn about a disease or condition? Share your thoughts in the comments section, and take a second to vote in today's poll.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 3, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer  
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When searching for valid, high-quality health information, don't forget to use - , an excellent site created and maintained by expert librarians at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The health topic page for Cancer- , links to up-to-date, easy to read full-text resources.
Another source of health information could be as close as your public library. Check this link to see if you have a consumer health library nearby, and give them a call:

Posted by: CheekyLibrarian | June 3, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

Wait a minute. It was BAD that Wikipedia treated you like you were smarter than a 9th-grader??? I mean, come on. That sounds like a good thing.

Posted by: rlalumiere | June 3, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

What I use Wikipedia for is a basic definition, and then links out to reputable medical sources (like Mayo Clinic and the like). In other words, I use it as a starting point, not my final destination.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | June 3, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I always go to the National Library of Medicine first when I want reliable information on health topics.

Posted by: gtf13 | June 3, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Rlalumiere, didn't they tell you? Patients who use the Internet to find medical information aren't very smart.

Posted by: zickzack | June 4, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

When dealing with a much less prevalent cancer that has limited scientific data to reference, a patient based website can be the best source of support with specific information, cutting edge research results,etc. Naturally, the source should be thoroughly vetted but it can be an emotional as well as intellectual lifeline.
Wikipedia provides a good first step in basic understanding, far more useful than the more generic government sources.

Posted by: QBee1 | June 8, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

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