Pharmacovigilance Taps Social Media

Getting drugs out to market is not an overnight task. Nor is it a simple one. Years of research and testing are behind any one drug that makes its way into the public domain. But, the reality of the human body and the science behind drug creation is that adverse effects can happen to anyone, anyplace, at anytime. Not every drug works consistently across patient populations. Age, demographics, gender and culture can all play a role in whether a drug will work effectively, without incidence.

The Life Sciences industry has developed a science behind the detection, assessment, understanding and prevention of adverse effects called Pharmacovigilance (PV). Back in 1961, the World Health Organization (WHO) established an international drug monitoring program in response to the thalidomide disaster. Today, more than 134 countries participate in their program. In general, PV is a time-consuming, resource-draining process but one that is vital to capturing, assessing and reporting on these events. Sources of these events can come from healthcare professionals, solicited reports from patient support programs, clinical reports, post-marketing studies, literature sources and now, social media.

Unlike much of the other data that comes in through the PV process, social media is the hardest to capture, assimilate and digest. Social media data is unstructured, at best. Social media input is as much about the sentiment as it might be about the data. When someone posts a comment about the reaction they had to their new depression medication, it is likely not going to be a list of specific symptoms. Rather, the post will be about their feelings and emotional reactions – not their physical reactions. But, on social media, you’re more likely to get more input from more users of that medication in additional parts of the world, faster. In other words, if you have a process to capture and sift through this unstructured sentiment data, you’d have a mountain of information from which to make decisions from.

A simple search on Twitter for #depression produces over 1,500 tweets in less than 24 hours. Scale that over a month, and you can compile 45,000 unique data points. That is magnitudes higher than what might typically come across in a more structured study. With that kind of information, doesn’t this give life science companies everything they need about the safety of their drugs post-marketing? Unfortunately, the answer is still ‘no’. Currently, this sentiment information gives trending information, but not hard scientific data (for the most part). And, many of these posts may have nothing to do with a particular medication or problem – they may just be generic comments.

The beauty of social media is that it has become a fundamental part of our fabric of life and will continue to play a vital role in how we now share information within our individual communities. As a result, social media is increasing in its importance in areas such as Pharmacovigilance. Progressive life science companies are tapping into this resource and making it part of their PV strategy. In fact, as my colleague Mary Gallagher pointed out, in an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 26, 2015, the WHO is looking to revive itself after the Ebola disaster of 2014. Nonresponsive and out of touch are no longer acceptable for an organization that can save lives. And, social media must be part of their strategy to rebuild their brand and get in touch with the population they serve: the world.

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