Consider this fact: 90 percent of patients’ negative experiences with prescription drugs go unreported. Now a new tool has opened the door to better understanding the side effects that patients experience, and that tool is social media.
Of course, there’s been a system in place for many years created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which monitors negative side effects from drugs, based on reporting from doctors. However, the current system is a cumbersome one, with patients required to fill out a four-page form for the FDA on any problem with a prescription medication, be it small or overwhelming. Needless to say, many just don’t.
Enter social media
However, many people do take their woes and complaints about the side effects of their medication to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, opening up a new portal of information. The challenge for those seeking to data mine this information from a massive amount of posting has been compared to “a huge pile of coal filled with diamonds.”
There’s valuable data to be found about patients and their drug interactions, but locating it is the challenge. According to Businessweek, researchers from the FDA, Boston University, and Harvard Medical School examined more than 6 million tweets over 7 months and found some 4,000 plus “adverse events” that the FDA would recognize. Some popular medications even had their own hashtags, making the identification easier.
Technology companies step up
Of course, research like the study mentioned above does not provide ongoing information, but simply a snapshot of a specific time period. Along have come several companies, who are using data mining tools to provide pharmaceutical companies with this same sort of information, albeit on an ongoing basis, for a price. The first among these was Teatro, which began six years ago in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Teatro has attracted both venture capital and customers. It has also spend years developing algorithms that can ferret out meaningful messages and abbreviations. It can determine, for example, if BP is “blood pressure,” “bipolar,” or “British Petroleum.”
Patients can also link to Teatro’s site to learn about drug side effects and to share their own experiences. The most common topics searched by its annual 20 million website visitors are pregnancy, weight loss, and pain management. At least nine pharmaceutical companies use the data provided by Teatro to learn about patients, their behavior, drug side effects, and switching medications.
In the United States, a newer competitor to Teatro has emerged called Epidemico, which was started in 2012. Epidemico has received some FDA funding for its project and currently has an app called MedWatcher, which allows patients search the FDA’s database for information on the side effects of both drugs and medical devices. As with Teatro, patients can also leave feedback about their own experience.
Making the experience of reporting and cataloging drug side effects easier can only be seen as a win-win for both pharmaceutical companies and their patients. As access to reporting becomes easier, companies will get a more fully rounded picture of the patient experience and, in turn, it is hoped, patients will get better drugs.