Harvard Medical School To Help Build Wikipedia for Medicine

Brainchild of Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Medpedia will feature content written by experts and scholars

It started with late nights, four crying kids, and a worried father.

James P. Currier, founder and chairman of Medpedia—what aims to become the world's largest collaborative online encyclopedia of medicine and health—recalls scouring the Web for medical information while comforting a sick child or two. Even for a tech-savvy entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, readily-accessible, credible information was not easy to find online.

"I felt as if medical information on the Web was more underdeveloped than other areas I was used to spending time on the Web with," Currier said. "I've been building Web sites for years, and I felt that there needed to be an upgrade on what was available."

The Medpedia Project, which Currier aims to launch by the end of the year, is a global effort modeled after Wikipedia, to build a comprehensive medical resource that will be readily accessible and understandable to both health professionals and patients.

In addition to the encyclopedic "wiki" component of Medpedia—which will be edited by approved contributors selected through an internal review process—the online Web site will serve as a professional network for the medical community and a platform for patient groups.

"In the big picture, it's an attempt to engage the health and medical communities with Web technology, something that is only beginning today," said Currier, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1999 and has partnered with scholars at Harvard to launch Medpedia.

Though the free public site will be launched by year end, a preview site is already available.

SOWING THE SEEDS

Between now and the launch, faculty at Harvard Medical School will be contributing un-editable seed content to the site.

Medical School professor Anthony L. Komaroff, who sits on an advisory committee for the Medpedia Project, said that although others will not be able to edit the early content, people will be able to send in their comments and "engage in dialogue."

Komaroff, who is also the editor of the Harvard Health Publications Division of the Medical School, added that the seed content will span a broad spectrum of topics ranging from diseases and symptoms to wellness and prevention. He added, though, that it is still "a work in progress."

"We have a vast repository of content created by faculty and peer reviewed internally," Komaroff said. "Our goal is to distribute high quality health information to the general public—and that's part of Harvard Medical School's educational mission."

(Joseph B. Martin, who stepped down as dean of the Medical School last year, is one of the four members of Medpedia's Board of Advisers. He could not be reached for comment.)

Other academic institutions, including the medical schools at Stanford and Michigan and the school of public health at Berkeley, will be also contributing to the Medpedia Project, though all of the content that they provide will be editable.

SHINING IN SUNLIGHT

While Currier is financing the Medpedia project himself for now, he hopes that Medpedia will generate enough revenue with its "non-intrusive text ads" to cover costs and "serve the medical community better."

He expects to maintain a technical staff of about 15 paid employees, and contributors will add their articles on a volunteer basis.

Currier said that the Medpedia Project will not take any funds from the biomedical industry in order to prevent conflicts of interest that could arise if it were to take funds from pharmaceutical companies, for example.

Linda Hawes Clever, a clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and a member of Medpedia's Board of Advisers, called the conflict-of-interest policies an "imperative in progress."

Currier said that it will be easier to discover conflict-of-interest issues in an online environment, since Web media lend themselves to greater transparency.

Although there will be Medpedia pages covering certain treatments and drugs, Currier noted that editors will be prohibited from prescribing treatment.

"The aim of the site is just to push out information," Currier said. "Everyone is so different; every situation is so different."

THE BIG CHALLENGE

Though the main part of Medpedia is designed to provide objective information, the site will also feature separate pages for debate and commentary among the medical community.

Komaroff and Clever both said that the interactive features of Medpedia would provide a unique medium for patients to connect online, share their experiences, and offer advice.

"It's sort of amazing how many insights non health professionals who have personally experienced disease can provide about that disease," Komaroff said.

Clever cited studies that show the benefits patients in similar situations derive from interacting with each other.

The Medpedia founders acknowledge that creating and interlinking the Web pages over the next few years for such a large body of ever-changing information will not be an easy task given that there are over 30,000 known diseases and conditions and more than 10,000 drugs prescribed annually.

"The big challenge is," Komaroff said, "will enough people contribute enough time and energy to make Medpedia what it aspires to become?

But the response to Medpedia's call for qualified editors shows promise.

"We will be announcing our numbers when we launch the site," Currier said. "But we are way ahead of our expectations."

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.