I have developed a special interest in the interaction of pharmaceutical companies with social media and have blogged about this topic (see, for example: FDA Issues Warning Letter to Drug Company about Use of Instagram; Hedge Funds Turn to "Social Listening" to Guide Pharma Investments; FDA Issues Warning Letter to Drug Company about Use of Instagram). A recent article addressed how GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) was monitoring social media to learn more about adverse reactions to its products (see: GSK, Merck use social media to learn how patients use drugs outside the lab). Below is an excerpt from the article
[The] director of pharmacovigilance at GlaxoSmithKline... [recently discussed] how the pharma company uses the data it collects from its partnership with Epidemico....GlaxoSmithKline collected data about public postings on Twitter and Facebook that mentioned any of a list of 1,000 of the companies drugs. Altogether, they found more than 6 million hits on Twitter and more than 15 million hits on Facebook. [He said:] “To put that in perspective, there’s more adverse events discussions online, in social media, in one year than there are in the FDA database since it started in 1968,”....Epidemico helps GSK to filter that data, eliminate the noise posts, de-identify it (which importantly helps GSK get around FDA reporting requirements) and standardized the language around things like drug names and medical conditions. The company uses the data more or less the same way it uses drug safety and usage data from other sources....[I]t gets turned over to the drug safety team, which identifies trends and takes action if necessary. In at least one case, Facebook postings monitored through this initiative directly led to a recall of an over-the-counter offering in Australia that had a manufacturing defect.
But sometimes social media turns out data that’s not really like anything pharma companies have ever had access to before. For instance, the company has come across rich sources of information about how people are abusing their drugs....So what they’re doing is they’re actually going in and telling people and coordinating, collecting data on the highs they get, collecting safety data, and then communicating to the abuse community how to abuse the drug.”....The [social media] data can also be unexpectedly rich in helping compare adverse events to benefits of the drug. Twenty-nine percent of drug mentions the company has tracked mention the benefits patients received and 16 percent contextualize benefits around adverse events — as in “this drug gave me a migraine, but it was worth it”.
It should probably not come as a surprise that social media are a rich source of information about drug adverse drug events (ADE's) for GSK pharmacovigilance personnel. Thought its partnership with Epidemico, as noted above, the company has discovered more than 20 million mention's of ADE's to its products in one year on Twitter and Facebook. The role of Epidemico, also noted above, is very interesting: Epidemico helps GSK to filter that data, eliminate the noise posts, de-identify it (which importantly helps GSK get around FDA reporting requirements) and standardized the language around things like drug names and medical conditions.
One of the major flaws in our current system of clinical trials of drugs is that we have few insights into problems experienced after FDA approval and availability in the market (see: FDA Steps Up Focus on Monitoring Drugs after Approval):
The FDA has introduced a new division at the CDER’s (Center for Drug Evaluation and Research) Office of Biostatistics which, along with rapid advances made in the field of pharmacogenomics...[and] focuses exclusively on researching the safety and effectiveness of medications which are introduced to the patient market. By doing this, they will be able to see if potential risks exist with any medications or treatments that had previously received FDA approval.
One means to assess post-market drug safety after FDA approval is by mining EHR data (see: Using electronic health records to help advance drug development and safety monitoring; CROs Favored by Investors Due to Growth in Phase IV Studies; The Sentinel Initiative: A National Strategy for Monitoring Medical Product Safety). Another path would obviously be social media, as in the case of ADE's, but skill would be required in extracting meaningful data from social media comments.