We've all done it. The first sign of a sniffle or that rash that doesn't look quite right and we turn to the one doctor that is free and always open: the Internet. And according to researchers, these searches like these that include drug names can be used to detect unknown drug interaction and side effects.
While the FDA has an Adverse Events Reporting System where users can go to find or report information about their drug, it's thought most people don't use it. Many (like myself) probably didn't even know it existed, and so the Internet becomes the medium of choice for looking for information. In one example, patients who were taking paroxetine (an anti-depressant) and pravastin (a cholesterol medication) were much more likely to search for one of 80 words that describe symptoms of hypoglycemia than those who were just taking just one of the drugs, revealing a potentially serious interaction that nobody knew about before.
The project was undertaken by researchers at Microsoft, Columbia and Stanford. Using information from consenting users, they looked at the plethora of data searches we all query every day. While it was initially thought the data could be skewed as users of an anti-depressant/anxiety medication might be more likely to be haunting the Internet looking for trouble, the fact is the search for the specific terms for hypoglycemia did not happen when users were just searching for either of the drugs on their own.
While search engines will never take the place of doctors or drug trials in identifying the bulk of interactions and side effects, this new discovery makes it clear there are new and interesting ways of crowdsourcing useful information about current and yet-to-be-discovered medication. In fact, there's even a new word for it: pharmacovigilance.
The study is detailed in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.
The Atlantic, via Geekosytem