Too much information?

How things have changed. Once information was a precious commodity, jealously guarded by the elite who deliberately withheld it from the masses in order to keep them in their place. Now information is everywhere, available to everybody, all of the time. While the democratization of information is undoubtedly a force for good, is there such a thing as too much information? And, who is verifying the information? Does something become true just because it has been written?

No issue has been more affected by the explosion of information than health. A 2009 study reported that 61 percent of the population currently look online for health information, a figure up from 25 percent in the year 2000. More and more patients are going to their doctors having already researched their symptoms on the Internet, and already convinced of their own diagnosis. What is more, doctors are also increasingly turning to the Internet, with nearly half of doctors reporting using the notoriously inaccurate Wikipedia as a source of medical information. Interestingly, despite their enthusiasm for Wikipedia as a source of information, around only 10% of the physicians surveyed actually created new posts or editing existing entries, which is surprising when you consider that these are the very people best qualified for the task.

So, just how reliable is all this information? A study from The Annals of Pharmacotherapy compared drug information from Wikipedia with the Medscape Drug Reference (MDR), the largest online drug reference designed for practicing physicians and reviewed by pharmacists. Researchers found that Wikipedia was able to answer less than half the drug information questions answered by MDR (40.0% vs. 82.5%), Wikipedia was rated 0% for information on dosing, compared with 90% for MDR, and answers on Wikipedia were 76.0% complete, compared with 95.5% complete on MDR. Errors of omission were also much higher on Wikipedia (48 in total) than MDR (just 14).

As well as the danger of inaccurate information on Wikipedia, there is some evidence that pharmaceutical companies have intentionally tried to delete or modify Wikipedia entries that have mentioned adverse effects associated with their drugs.

The irony is, that as the amount of information available grows, and people try to find ways to pick the reliable sources from the rest, it is the ‘old fashioned’ media that may ultimately provide the path through this minefield. As people are burnt by unreliable information from unknown, or discredited, sources, they may begin to go back to the names they know and trust. The traditional newspapers and broadcasting networks may yet benefit from the this age of information, particularly in the critical area of healthcare.

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