Digital Insights: Web 2.0 on the Trail of the Swine Flu

June 2, 2009
The Google/Twitter map, and applications like it, promise to help the drug industry respond to emerging crises

It is hard not to get caught up in the swine flu madness. I can barely enjoy my breakfast anymore without thinking I may somehow contract the H1N1 virus.  I see myself quarantined, in an isolated chamber with a glass wall, being examined by government officials.  This fear may be paranoid, and straight out of Hollywood, but I doubt I’m the only one who has it right now.

In scouring news media sites to keep up with the latest news on the pandemic, or near-pandemic,I came across an interesting tool that has potential for use in the pharma industry. Google Maps recently partnered with Twitter to produce an interactive map of the U.S. that pinpoints reported swine flu cases in real-time, but also shows “pop-up” messages whenever someone tweets anything regarding “swine flu” or the “H1N1 virus” in their geographic location. One could, in theory, spend all day reading real-time tweets about swine flu from all over the country on one map.

Now I have my issues with the narcissistic nature of the Twitter platform, but I do think something like this has great potential to be useful in the drug industry. WHO and CDC have been using the swine flu Google/Twitter map to keep tabs on potential flu cases, assess geographic hotspots, and gauge public opinion. Sure, it’s not “scientific” data, but it certainly has value for spotting trends and raising red flags.[pullquote]

FDA and pharmaceutical companies may be able to use a similar platform to keep tabs on drug performance or analyze certain regions for potential health hazards, or perhaps forecast changing demands in order to adjust production/supply levels.

Twitter Search allows you to monitor a particular keyword, brand or product name and register for an RSS feed for that search query. Drug companies and researchers can utilize this information in their studies to track their brands and monitor patient information and potential drug safety issues.

Novartis is using Google Earth and a tailored social media software in its interactive website CMLEarth. The site is a networking tool for patients, caregivers and physicians around the world to exchange stories and information regarding chronic myeloid leukemia. In a perfect world, platforms like this would exist for all drug types, sponsored by the drug companies themselves, so that patient-created message boards and chat rooms would not be the only such resources available.

The powers of social media platforms need to be tapped in order for outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Google to be put to use in a more constructive way, so that they become much more than mere outlets for personal expression. If the public is willing to volunteer information in an open forum, this information should be captured to help us better understand and cope with pandemics and other public health issues.

About the Author

Michele Vaccarello Wagner | Senior Digital Editor