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B.C. physician writes — and fixes — Wikipedia medical information

Dr. James Heilman is an emergency physician at the Cranbrook hospital but when he’s not working shifts there or climbing local mountains, he’s at his computer writing and editing medical information on Wikipedia to ensure it’s an accurate resource.
Dr. James Heilman spends up to 60 hours a week at his computer writing and editing medical information on Wikipedia to ensure it's an accurate resource.

Dr. James Heilman is an emergency physician at the Cranbrook hospital but when he’s not working shifts there or climbing local mountains, he’s at his computer writing and editing medical information on Wikipedia to ensure it’s an accurate resource.

Heilman, head of emergency medicine at East Kootenay Regional Hospital and a UBC clinical professor, says he’s the only B.C. doctor — one of only a few hundred physicians around the world — volunteering time to the free, online Wikipedia encyclopedia. And about 875 articles he’s worked on have been translated to other languages.

Although it consumes much of his spare time — up to 60 hours a week — he derives great satisfaction in knowing that he’s helping to improve medical literacy around the world.

“From my view, it is gratifying work, sort of like doctors volunteering for Doctors Without Borders,” Heilman said in an interview.

“Improving content on the internet is important global public health work, especially since medical pages alone on Wikipedia get more than seven billion page views a year, in 285 languages.”

Heilman’s first exposure to Wikipedia came while he was in medical school at the University of Saskatchewan between 2000 and 2003. Although the online encyclopedia — reportedly the fifth largest website on the internet — has been criticized for sometimes-inaccurate content, 95 per cent of medical students use it, according to surveys cited by Heilman, and 50 per cent of practising doctors use it in some capacity. A controversial study published in the journal Nature compared Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica and found comparable accuracy for science entries.

Given the frequency with which health consumers use the internet to search for medical information, Heilman tries to entice other doctors to help improve Wikipedia content. But all too often, the familiar refrain is “I’m too busy with other commitments.”

“I understand that medical experts want to get academic credit for their articles, so they stick to writing for medical journals,” he said. “But creating content for Wikipedia has impact on a global scale and now we have even created a medical content mobile app that is being used extensively in developing countries.”

An article he’s preparing, based on research he helped conduct, will show that Wikipedia content offers a surprising benefit to medical students. The study will show that Wikipedia searches help Canadian medical students get better marks, compared to some of the other leading digital sites and even textbooks typically used by students, he said.

Asked if he uses Wikipedia content to help diagnose and treat patients he sees in the emergency room, Heilman says: “I definitely do that at times. And sometimes I even give patients handouts or articles I wrote with pertinent information from Wikipedia. It helps educate patients. And in an era of shared decision-making, we’re all better off with more educated patients.”

The Wiki Project Med Foundation, with which Heilman is aligned, ensures that when public health outbreaks or newsworthy medical events occur, information is immediately updated and elaborated on. U.S. Senator John McCain’s recent announcement of brain cancer is one example, as are emerging diseases like Zika and Ebola.

Although he’s committed to polishing Wikipedia content, Heilman said patients need to consult several high-quality sources when making health care decisions. He recommends the Cochrane website for evidence-based reviews of health research and the U.S. National Institutes of Health website. At the same time, he urges health consumers to be aware that sites like Facebook can be “a disaster” for medical information.

“Think about the anti-vaccination crowd using Facebook. No one is screening any of the false information posted on sites like that. Twitter can also be pretty dreadful that way.”

Heilman will conduct a year-in-review session at the Wikimania conference being held in Montreal Aug. 9 to 13, the first time the annual conference is being held in Canada. The conference will focus on such topics as the advancement of the free knowledge movement, privacy and digital rights, and the role of technology to advance those goals.

Some of the highlighted sessions at this year’s Wikimania conference include:

• “Community and information in a partisan world”

— Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia founder, in conversation with Gabriella Coleman, the Wolfe chair in scientific and technological literacy at McGill University, moderated by Evan Prodromou, founder of Wikitravel.

• “Wikimedia 2030”

by Katherine Maher, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Christophe Henner, chair of the board of trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation.

• “Wikidemocracy”

— Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and Centennial professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. Her most recent book Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy won the 2012 Roy C. Palmer Civil Liberties.

• “Experiences from the Middle East: Overcoming Challenges and Serving Communities”

— by Esra’a Al-Shafei, Bahraini human rights activist, outspoken defender of free speech and founder of, a network of online platforms that amplify under-reported and marginalized voices.

• “Libraries, Archives and Sharing Knowledge”

— Frédéric Giuliano, archivist coordinator, bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec and Hélène Laverdure, the archives’ curator and director general of the National Archives.