Medical wiki blends social networking with research

The physician-written online medical encyclopedia is open to the public.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted March 9, 2009

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Medpedia, the doctor-run wiki created by some big names in the medical field, is up and running online.

Medpedia is one of scores of medical wikis or information sites that allow any user to write or edit in an encyclopedia-style format. However, Medpedia, one of the few medical wikis whose authorship is mostly limited to physicians, evolved during its development into a social networking tool, as well as an information source.

Medpedia was developed by San Francisco-based Ooga Labs; the University of Michigan Medical School; Boston's Harvard Medical School; California's Stanford University School of Medicine; and the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.

James Currier, founder and CEO of Ooga Labs and the person who developed the Medpedia idea, said after plans were announced for the site in July 2008, more than 110 organizations inquired about it.

Currier said that while many expressed an interest in lifting copyrights on proprietary research, or authoring original content for the site, potential contributors also saw the site as a way to gain personal recognition. As a result, the group changed its site to a hybrid of social networking and medical research.

Site developers added an "original authorship" designation that permanently recognizes the original author of each article and provides links to the author's bio and contact information. The site also includes community discussion groups, message boards and "expert finder" functions.

Other changes include a portal for laypeople and nonphysician health care professionals to contribute content for review and possible posting. This change was made at the suggestion of Harvard, which allows patients to write for its journals when they have first-person knowledge of a disease or condition.

While several medical wikis have developed in recent years -- 69 at last count by David Rothman, a medical librarian and blogger -- few have limited their contributors only to vetted medical professionals. But at least one other physician-run wiki, like Medpedia, sees the potential for the sites to become a networking tool.

Brian Jefferson, MD, an interventional cardiologist from Nashville, Tenn., who helped create AskDrWiki, said growth of that site has been slow in terms of adding content. But it has been able to bring together like-minded physicians, and there are plans to add a social networking aspect. "By growing that community, we would grow the content portion of the site, but also networking possibilities."

As more contacts are made, and more medical wikis are created, Dr. Jefferson said they likely will start to morph together. "We have seen where our content has ended up on other sites. In some ways I wonder if eventually this will all end up on Wikipedia," a general-interest online encyclopedia written by users. It is not connected with Medpedia.

Medpedia's growth might be hindered by the involvement of major medical institutions, Dr. Jefferson said. Other physicians may feel intimidated entering a space dominated by a tight-knit group. He said he foresees a site with contributors from many different institutions who can come to a consensus on the information presented. Until that happens, there will be some bias in terms of what material is presented and in what way.

But Currier said the pool of contributors and editors on Medpedia is far-reaching. He described a "land grab" of doctors wanting to head committees on certain areas of interest. Vetted editors can create a board and committee for any topic they desire. Currier said this process will eventually be self-governing, and committee boards will rotate annually.

Dr. Jefferson said these type of sites can evolve into a major tool in health care delivery. "We feel that this is something that will advance the field over time, especially with the push for more fiscal responsibility for physicians. Providing these resources will improve patient care without some of the redundancy. It's a great, exciting time to be involved in this field."

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External links

Medpedia, a physician-run medical wicki (link)

Blog of David Rothman, a medical librarian (link)

AskDrWiki, a medical wicki (link)

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