How Internet Searches Can Be Used to Boost Drug Safety

The Science Daily article “Internet Searches Can Identify Drug Safety Issues Well Ahead of Public Alerts” discusses indications of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association that internet searches can actually act as an early warning system for prescription drug side-effects. Within the study, millions of web users who agreed to install a browser add on to share their online searches with Microsoft, had their web searches tracked throughout a year. It started out that the researchers developed automated tools that tracked the search queries of users that searched for information on the antidepressant paroextine and a cholesterol drug prevastatin using Google, Bing and Yahoo! During the time of the experiment it was not public knowledge that mixing these drugs caused high blood sugar (later it was found out that the mixture did in fact cause high blood sugar). The study looked for people that searched for one or both of the drugs, that also searched using terms that are associated with high blood sugar. All told, there were 82 million drug related queries from 6 million users. For people who searched online for both drugs in a year time period, nearly 30% of searches for both drugs were made on the same day. (40% were made in the same week, 60% in the same month) During the study people who searched both drugs were twice as likely to search for terms related to high blood sugar. The correlation remained study through the entire period of study, and were not influenced by the news because the effects of high blood sugar was unknown.

The benefits of log analysis are endless when put into this context. There could be potential drug safety benefits via this log analysis that is conducted millions of times daily. The conclusion of the experiment: “We believe that patient search behavior directly captures aspects of patients’ concerns about sensed [symptoms] and can complement more traditional sources of data for pharmacovigilance [drug safety monitoring].”

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1 thought on “How Internet Searches Can Be Used to Boost Drug Safety”

  1. Interestingly, Google has used search trends to track flu seasons since 2006. Google simply collates the trends for what it deems to be relevant search terms (as they relate to the flu) and displays the data here: http://www.google.org/flutrends/us/#US. They’ve had some success over the years, but also faced embarrassment when they overestimated peak levels in 2012-2013 (http://www.nature.com/news/when-google-got-flu-wrong-1.12413). It seems to me, however, that in spite of missteps along the way, the mining of big data could be immensely important to medicine.

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