The popular online encyclopedia, featuring millions of articles on the most diverse topics, in more than 250 languages, should not be regarded as an authority in drugs and therapies, a new study, published in the December 2008 issue of Annals of Pharmacotherapy, finds. The research was led by Dr. Kevin A. Clauson, at the Nova Southeastern University (NSU), in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
It's not that Wikipedia is inaccurate in its description of drugs. In fact, the research team found little evidence of that. Rather, it omits important information about the side-effects of many drugs, as well as a thorough description of the health risks posed by interactions between various classes of drugs.
"If people went and used this as a sole or authoritative source without contacting a health professional (...) those are the types of negative impacts that can occur," Clauson told Reuters, referring to the fact that his team found that on the description page of the anti-inflammatory drug Arthrotec, there was no reference to the fact that it could cause miscarriages.
The NSU researchers analyzed some 80 drugs, split into 8 categories of information, including prescriptions, actions, dosages and recommended intakes. To better substantiate their results, they took the Medscape Drug Reference (MDR) website as a reference point. MDR is also a free site, but it has received positive peer reviews and is considered to be one of the most reliable pages on the Internet.
Of the question sets that the scientists used during the test, MDR could answer approximately 83 percent, whereas Wikipedia could only provide 40 percent of the correct answers. Similarly, the free encyclopedia contained 48 omission errors, compared to the 14 the research team found while browsing MDR.
Clauson also said that the risks for patients are increased by the fact that a Google search of a specific over-the-counter medicine often yields a Wikipedia entry as its first result. Moreover, several drug manufacturers have been caught deleting important information from their pages, so as to make their products look more attractive.
The lead researcher does not urge people to avoid Wikipedia. Rather, consulting other websites could probe to be a very good way of avoiding any unfortunate incidents, involving drugs that could combine to create adverse reactions in people with sensibility to this kind of things.