Do We Need a Free Medical Encyclopedia?

The answer is clearly yes. Although Google works fine, sometimes you just want to check the facts in Wikipedia, and you type "example + Wikipedia" in the search box instead of browsing through 10 million results.

There are two approaches to creating a medical encyclopedia.

1. "Close source" but reputable. Medical Media

WebMD owns Medscape and it just acquired eMedicine. The content offered by this medical media conglomerate is peer-reviewed, up-to-date and generally of good quality. The former JAMA editor George D. Lundberg, MD discusses the new acquisition in WebMD, Medscape, eMedicine, and the Relevance of a Medical Encyclopedia in 2006 (free registration required)

2. Open source but difficult to verify? Wikipedia

Wikipedia has a Medicine portal which is growing fast and it is free to copy, as opposed to the WebMD offering, which is copyrighted. For exampe, I often use Wikipedia images to illustrate posts on this blog. I cannot use the WebMD copyrighted images.

Just recently, a few U.K. and Australlian doctors launched a wiki-based textbook of medicine which can be edited by any registered medical practitioner willing to do so, and which may be copied and redistributed unchanged non-commercially by anyone. The problem is that the name (Ganfyd) is impossible to remember and this effort duplicates the Wikipedia Medicine project to a large extent.

"Ganfyd is an old medical mutterance whose meaning is known only to the initiated." Really?...

Also, the contributions are limited to "doctors registered with the General Medical Council (UK) or the equivalent bodies in Canada, Australia or New Zealand." This leaves out more than 800,000 U.S. doctors who are potential contributors to the Ganfyd wiki project.

The idea of creating an open wiki-based textbook of medicine is a a good one and it will be implemented in one form or another.

The Alternative. Just search

Nothing beats the simplicity of typing your question in Google and getting the answer within the first 10 results...

UBC Google Scholar Blog writes that "medical search on the Web is an untapped market, both on the consumer and physician side of the equation. We are still waiting for that next great thing."

Kosmix is a new search engine which, although still limited, looks promising. It has clustered categories relevant to physicians: Basic Information, Definition, Causes, Symptoms, Treatments, Expert Information, Case Studies, Clinical Trials, Journals, Practice Guidelines, Medical Organizations, Blogs.

Wikis in Plain English

WebMD, Medscape, eMedicine, and the Relevance of a Medical Encyclopedia in 2006. Posted 02/01/2006. Medscape General Medicine
Healthline, Kosmix & MammaHealth - Medical Search in the News. February 01, 2006. UBC Google Scholar Blog
Start-up hopes to challenge Google. Feb. 04, 2006. The Mercury News
A new medical search engine and more... The Palmdoc Chronicles
Is a medical Wikipedia a good idea? Respectful Insolence.
Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. Boulos MNK, Maramba I, Wheeler S. BMC Med Educ 2006;6:41.
Which Wiki is Right for You? School Library Journal, 5/1/2007.
Elsevier’s WiserWiki., 11/2007.
Image source: Wikipedia.

Updated: 11/15/2007


  1. Hi,
    Thanks for mentioning in your blog.
    The name is indeed rather difficult to remember, but when we started out we were initially thinking small. Very small, actually, with a target audience of a few tens of UK doctors who were all in the know as to what ganfyd meant. The name, and the "Ganfyd is an old medical mutterance whose meaning is known only to the initiated." comment was meant to be a tongue in cheek in-house gag at the time (it actually means Get A Note From Your Doctor, a common bugbear amongst General Practitioners in a society where perfectly intelligent members of the public cannot be trusted by their employers to do anything without a note from their doctor - frustrating for doctors and patients alike, and most definately NOT a dig at patients as some have thought).

    Things have changed, and we have collectively come to realise the potential of this format to be an excellent method of collating medical information.

    The trouble with medical facts is that errors can impinge on health if acted upon. To this end, ganfyd differs from the Wikipedia Medicine Portal by being editable only by registered medical practitioners or a selection of allied healthcare professionals. The aim is to ensure that information is accurate and has a medical basis. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone (and so it should), but ganfyd is does not share the same aims as Wikipedia. Ganfyd is a knowledge base 'by medical professionals, for medical professionals' whereas the Wikipedia Medicine Portal is 'by People Who Know What They Are Talking About, for Anyone'.

    What started out as an exercise in knowledge sharing for a few individuals has now grown to accept content from members in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. We hope to increase this to other countries including the USA in due course, but we need to walk before we can run, and putting in place an effective validation system for members from a country as complex as the USA will take a little planning!

    Now, about that name... any ideas gratefully accepted!

    - Adam Brown, UK doc and ganfyd administrator

  2. We belong under heading "3" not heading 2, and content as it emerges will, like good Wikipedia pages, be verifiable.

    We are also not an encyclopedia. (See ganfyd:ganfyd_is_not page

    I'm pleased you have noticed us.

    Adrian Midgley. UK GP, ganfyd member, WP editor.

  3. There is a medical wiki at which has similar wiki engine as that of wikipedia aiming to be a free medical encyclopedia. It has Gray's Anatomy online and articles on many medicine topics.

  4. What do we need a medical encyclopedia for?

    I believe that question needs answering before progressing to the "what's the solution" . The implicit assumption was that you need a resource to answer clinical questions.

    Although not a clinician I have a fair experience on answering questions for clinicians. To date me and my teams ( and have answered over 7,500 questions from primary care – mainly general practitioners but also a small number from nurses and pharmacists.

    Each perceived solution creates its own problems.

    Take Google, you carry out a search and you get an answer. However, it is frequently difficult to ascertain if that answer is reputable. What Google gives you is a quick answer. I designed the TRIP Database ( to help support our answering efforts and only includes reputable ‘evidence based’ sources (with a few eTextbooks thrown in). I’m not suggesting that TRIP approaches Google in terms of usefulness. However, that reflects the nature of research evidence (or lack of it in a number of areas). The TRIP ethos being quality not quantity (by the way, I’m acutely aware of the need for improvements on the TRIP algorithm).

    But the ‘solution’ of a medical encyclopedia is problematic. Aside from the issue of keeping it up-to-date the issue of ‘findability’ of ‘facts’ raises its head! PRODIGY (now renamed Clinical Knowledge Summaries) isn’t an encyclopedia but is a large body of ‘facts’. Due to its size it’s difficult to use. We get a large number of questions that simply require a ‘cut and paste’ from PRODIGY.

    Unfortunately, we are not in a position to answer clinical questions for everyone, we have enough problems answering more than 100 a week! But, clinicians around the globe answer questions for themselves every day. If these answers could be shared, we’d have a large knowledge base of answered questions (quality would be an important issue). In additions, why not create a Yahoo Answers for clinicians? We (TRIP) are experimenting with a few small-scale projects in this area. But allow doctors to answer questions for doctors. Create a ‘trust’ scoring something like “This doctor has previously answered 25 questions with an overall rating of 99%”.

    But I return to your original question, “Do We Need a Free Medical Encyclopedia?” – if we define why we need one that might better define the answer(s).