Your Google Searches Can Uncover Drug Side Effects Faster Than the FDA

Illustration for article titled Your Google Searches Can Uncover Drug Side Effects Faster Than the FDA

The internet: it's our teacher, our entertainer, and ever increasingly, our doctor. Every day, the country's sniveling, coughing, light-headed festering contagions plop in front of their computers in hopes of figuring out what the hell is a matter with them—for free. So while brilliant, it's not entirely surprising that scientists were, for the first time, able to find significant evidence of unreported prescription drug side effects faster than any of the FDA's own methods. And as The New York Times reports, all thanks to our ailing internet search queries.


Using data from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo search engines, the Stanford and Columbia University joint research team sifted though 6 million users' internet search queries (which you'll be uncomfortable to know, are forever saved in web search logs) and looked for searches that related to the antidepressant paroxetine and the cholesterol-lowering drug pravastin. They found that users who had searched for both of these drugs were also 10 percent more likely to search for hyperglycemia or one of its many symptoms. This number may seem small, but as The New York Times notes:

The researchers said they were surprised by the strength of the "signal" that they detected in the searches and argued that it would be a valuable tool for the F.D.A. to add to its current system for tracking adverse effects. "There is a potential public health benefit in listening to such signals," they wrote in the paper, "and integrating them with other sources of information."

Currently, the FDA documents interactions and side effects through the Adverse Event Reporting System, which only obtains new information when a physician notices something and goes on to report it. So while the FDA may have the tools to handle interactions as they come, they're increasingly reliant on this massive deposit of public data, the possibilities of which are only starting to become realized. So search away, sicklings—it's for the greater good. [The New York Times]

Image: Shuttershock/Robert Keneschke


Les Mikesell

What I don't understand is why there are not follow up exams with data collection - or at least an optional survey for _every_ drug or procedure, with 'big data' analysis on the results. Why doesn't some university or government agency tackle this? You can find out whether it's a good idea to order the shrimp at about any restaurant in the country easier than whether you should take some expensive drug. (Or know if the doctor was paid to recommend it...).