UCSF First U.S. Medical School to Offer Credit For Wikipedia Articles

Course Aims to Teach Students to Increase Reliability of Medical Information

By Juliana Bunim on September 26, 2013

UC San Francisco soon will be the first U.S. medical school at which medical students can earn academic credit for editing medical content on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is one of the most widely used medical references in the world and the most consulted source for many health topics. But medical entries can lack reliable sources and have gaps in content.

Amin Azzam, MD, MA, will be teaching a UCSF course in which students will

contribute and edit medical information on Wikipedia.

 “Wikipedia generates more than 53 million page views just for articles about medications each month, and is second to Google as the most frequently used source by junior physicians,” said Amin Azzam, MD, MA, an associate clinical professor at the UCSF School of Medicine and an instructor for the new class. “We’re recognizing the impact Wikipedia can have to educate patients and health care providers across the globe, and want users to receive the most accurate publicly available, sound medical information possible.”

Building Communication Skills

One of the key skills medical students are expected to acquire is the ability to seek, evaluate and interpret the medical literature for themselves, their peers and their patients. In traditional medical school courses, first and second year students are taught this skill in small group classroom sessions, while third and fourth year students are expected to apply this in the hospital wards and outpatient clinics.

“Writing and editing Wikipedia articles requires a similar skill set, and teaches our students how to write for a broader audience and communicate with patients using consumer-friendly language rather than doctor jargon,” said Azzam.

Enrolled medical students will edit articles remotely, adding images, reviewing new edits, adding citations to support unreferenced text, and providing a form of peer review. Professors can track the edits and changes made to each Wikipedia page to monitor the evolution of the content.

“We know that nearly all medical students use Wikipedia. However, we want nearly all medical students to contribute to Wikipedia,” said James Heilman, MD, president of the not-for-profit Wiki Project Med Foundation, an organization dedicated to trying to improve Wikipedia's medical content by forming collaborations with like-minded institutions. “I see this collaboration as a very important first step in this direction, a step which will not only be beneficial for Wikipedia but will be exceedingly useful for the students themselves.”  

High Demand for Quality Medical Articles

The new class is available to fourth-year medical students and will focus on editing 80 key articles that are the most frequented but have lower quality levels on Wikipedia.

All articles on Wikipedia are given a grade ranging from Featured Article, which reflects a professional level of encyclopedic information based mostly on the factual completeness of the article, to “C” which is defined as a substantial article that would be useful to a casual reader, but lacks important content. Featured articles are displayed on the main page and frequently are written by experts.

Amin Azzam explains how the UCSF elective course fits into Wikipedia's work to improve

accuracy of its information for the public.

Currently, medicine-related articles make up 58 Featured Articles on Wikipedia, and 145 Good Articles, which is less than 1 percent of the total articles in those categories, according to Azzam. “So there is a clear need to bring medicine articles up to par,” he said.

The class, which begins in December, is part of an ongoing collaboration between the UCSF School of Medicine and the Wiki Project Med Foundation. For the launch of this partnership earlier this year, UCSF invited two “Wikipedians” to visit San Francisco to give lectures and run editing sessions on the significance of Wikipedia to medicine. The class has its own evolving Wikipedia page.

“As these students are going to become the next generation of health care providers we need them to be able to communicate in language that the general population understands,” said Heilman. “This will hopefully help accomplish both.”

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy, a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic biomedical, translational and population sciences, as well as a preeminent biomedical research enterprise and two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Photos by Susan Merrell