Next: a Medical Wikipedia

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A project launched last week aims to create what is in essence a medical Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia focused on explaining conditions, drugs, procedures, medial facilities and other medical topics written by physicians and PhDs.

The Medpedia Project launched a preview of the Medpedia site Wednesday with the support of medical heavyweights like Harvard Medical School, the Stanford School of Medicine, the University of Michigan Medial School and the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health.

These schools and other organizations have agreed to provide content and to urge their employees to sign up to be editors of the new site, which is scheduled to go live with 1,000 pages of information by the end of the year.

The site, which is built with the same open source software that runs Wikipedia, will be written and edited by volunteer medical doctors or experts with PhD degrees, noted James Currier, Medpedia's founder and chairman. The site will provide profiles of each of each editor, including their background and areas of expertise, he added.

The volunteer editors will also have to disclose any compensation received from key outside entities like pharmaceutical companies. Experts can now apply on the site to be editors. Those selected will work with committees organized by specialties like pediatric oncology or dermatology to update and edit Medpedia Web pages.

Currier, who has worked on creating online communities since the 1990s, said that Medpedia aims to help apply the collaborative, bottoms-up approach that user-generated content brings to Web 2.0 sites to the medical community, which traditionally has been governed by the hierarchical, top-down approach of doctors handing down information to patients. Currier also founded Tickle, a psychological and self-assessment testing company that was sold to Monster in 2004 for more than US$90 million.

While the Medpedia plans initially received a "tepid" response from some in the medical community, interest increased they learned that the content would be created only by fully vetted licensed experts, according to Currier.

Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp. and the founding chair of the Mozilla Foundation, also supports the effort as a member of the Medpedia board of advisors, Currier said.

Currier said that the bottoms-up, collaborative approach made popular by Wikipedia and other social networks is perfectly suited to the Medpedia goal of creating and interlinking content about 13,000 drugs and 30,000 medical conditions.

"That problem alone is too complex for a top-down hierarchy," he said. "Whenever you have a very complex, interrelated ever-changing body of knowledge like medicine it is a perfect marriage with this bottoms- up collaborative process we've seen on the Web. As [the editors] contribute small bits, the sum total is much greater than anything a directed system could produce If there is a collaborative source it will not ever be perfect, but it will be the best we could ever do just from a mathematical perspective."

Currier said that unlike other online efforts around health information, Medpedia will provide all information relevant to a specific topic on one page and not chop it up over multiple pages to try to generate more page views. In addition, the navigation hierarchy has been designed to be simple for all levels of users, he added. While the main page on a topic will be written in language easy for consumers to understand, each topic will also feature a technical page for medical professionals or for patients as they delve deeper into a particular condition or topic, Currier added.

"It's feeling inevitable that all the medical and health information will be available worldwide at no charge via an open, collaborative platform like Medpedia," said Linda Hawes Clever, a medical doctor and clinical professor at University of California, San Francisco, Medical School, in a statement. "Medpedia will also serve as an important place for medical professionals to get credit and become known for their specialties."

Clever is also a member of Medpedia's advisory board.

In the future the site will show text-based advertising from third-party advertising sites like Google Ad Sense. A link will allow users to flag inappropriate ads, which will then be reviewed by editors and potentially prevented from being shown on the site in the future, Medpedia said.

For its part, Harvard Medical School will publish content on the site that are uneditable that their faculty has created. Other organizations like the University of Michigan Medical School will encourage their faculty to edit Medpedia, Currier noted.

Medpedia noted that other health and medical organizations supporting the effort include the American College of Physicians , the Oxford Health Alliance, the Federation of Clinical Immunology Societies and the European Federation of Neurological Associations. These groups are contributing content and promoting participation in Medpedia to their members.

Medpedia is also receiving content and cooperation from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Federal Drug Administration and other government research groups.

This story, "Next: a Medical Wikipedia" was originally published by Computerworld.

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