Digital Insights: Study Tracks Social Media

Academic study finds companies can use social media not only to collect consumer feedback, but also to alert FDA to drug problems and reactions.

By Michele V. Wagner, Senior Digital Editor

A study being conducted by the University of Virginia and West Virginia University, and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Smart Health and Wellbeing program, proposes that pharma companies can use social media to not only collect consumer feedback, but also alert FDA to drug problems and reactions more quickly.

According to a 2012 study by Pew Research, 65% of U.S. Internet users participate in one or more social media outlets. With people increasingly using the Web to learn about their symptoms, share information and broadcast their ailments to friends and family in their social media circles, University researchers will filter through numerous posts and messages on open blogs, boards, Facebook and Twitter to search for early warning signs of adverse drug reactions, which may have been later reported to FDA through official consumer and doctor channels.

Researchers involved in the study hope that the data collected may help modernize drug surveillance and bring issues to light much quicker.

According to The Huffington Post, “The FDA primarily relies on physicians and patients to enter suspected adverse events into a database of voluntary reports that have nearly doubled over the last five years and totaled around 800,000 in 2010, the latest figure available from the Agency. It can take multiple cases before someone at the Agency detects a pattern worth investigating. Then it conducts an investigation to determine whether the drug caused the side effects.”

However, early detection of adverse reaction may have negative consequences for pharma companies as well, making companies liable for drug reactions much sooner, but unable to discern from exaggerated or false reports.

Dr. Jerry Avorn, an expert in pharmaceutical safety at Harvard Medical School, suggested that “crowdsourcing” research on something as subjective as drug effects may not yield the most reliable results and instead cited FDA’s Sentinel program, which allows the agency to track the medical records for tens of millions of patients at the first hint of an adverse reaction.

West Virginia University professor, Donald Adjeroch, who is co-leading the project and believes that the creation of a manageable database would allow the industry and FDA to inevitably help patients sooner said, “If you get one thousand people saying the same kind of thing (about a drug), you know that there is maybe something going on somewhere.”

While there may be both negative and positive consequences of tracking early drug reactions for industry and regulators, it appears that anything that can help increase patient safety and knowledge is a step in the right direction.

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