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Online Medical Encyclopedia Soon to Launch

New America Media, News Report, Deborah Stokol Posted: Aug 30, 2008

Editor's note: WebMD may soon have competition from another online medical encyclopedia expected to be launched at the end of this year, Medpedia. But will the website offer the advertised unbiased medical information? Deborah Stokol is a graduate student at USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif - The clock indicated a late hour, and as his four children whimpered feverishly, James Currier scanned WebMD just as feverishly, trying to decide whether he should drive his family to the emergency room or not. As he looked through the popular online destination for those seeking to put a formal name to their symptoms, he became increasingly frustrated.

Ads, he sputtered, I was assaulted with them. More than simply encountering ads, though, he complained that due in part to what he saw as a disorganized Web site, he had made many unnecessary midnight trips to the Emergency Room.

In an age where at least preliminary answers to frantic questions are, for millions, only a mouse click away, turning to the Internet late at night when pressed by curiosity or need is not unusual.

Currier never questioned WebMDs usability or effectiveness, until he found himself misunderstanding its descriptions.

Two years ago, Currier, a Boston native who had relocated to San Francisco at the peak of the dot-com boom in the 1990s, decided there needed to be a site to better serve those late night panicked searches, a site that would resemble Wikipedia in its ability to provide information quickly and easily, but with better accountability.

So began construction on Medpedia, a site that Currier will launch at the end of this year.

webTrue to its name, the Web site, is set to form an online medical encyclopedia that pools the knowledge of numerous professionals and organizes it into a digestible format.

I wanted Medpedia to apply a bottom-up behavior model so I could get M.D.s in the field to make more and more changes [to the site], Currier explained.

Currier pulled experts from prestigious medical schools into helping him realize his vision.

Dr. Henry Lowe, Stanford University School of Medicines senior associate dean for information resources and technology, supported the idea.

"Making high-quality, unbiased medical information freely available to everyone via a collaborative, open and constantly evolving Web site has the potential [of] dramatically [having an] impact [on] both public and individual health," Lowe said.

Like Wikipedia, Curriers project will use a wiki format, a technology that allows for collaborative entries to Web sites. But it will have crucial differences as well.

One of these is Medpedia will require contributor identity. A mere 12 people work for Wikipedia to maintain the site. Other than those dozen, however, the site runs itself, existing as a semi-blank canvas on which anyone can paint and any other can paint over.

The editorial side of Medpedia, on the other hand, will be closed to all but those with an M.D. or Ph.D. in medical and scientific fields, and within that group, only those who have become members of Medpedia. This way, Currier hopes, high standards of accuracy could be maintained. The information would come only from professional sources.

As of now, WebMD is the site most commonly visited by those curious to see what their symptoms may mean. But some users take issue with it.

Some have found the site too technical for someone unversed in medicine, so Medpedia, hopes to translate the technical into a vernacular that a layperson can understand.

But Medpedia is not without its potential problems. Even with the careful vetting process, it is impossible to fully screen out those who would either intentionally or unintentionally mislead readers with their writing or disease descriptions. And even those contributing with the authority of schooling and experience are susceptible to human error or new discoveries to disavow what they once held as fact.

Moreover, the dangers that plague WebMD are the same that will threaten the validity of Medpedia and any site of its nature. Both sites clearly explain in their mission statements that they are meant to be viewed as guidelines, as centers of information by which readers can better educate themselves in order to know which questions to ask when consulting a professional, and are not to be turned to for advice or prescriptions.

But credulous readers could accept Medpedia as a substitute for a doctors visit.

Oogalabs, another non-profit created by Currier, funds Medpedia and other projects actively tied to the health and education of communities.

Ive really immersed myself in this system of collaborative behavior," Currier said. "Were building things we believe will be helpful.

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