Tracking adverse side effects through Twitter

Epidemico is a groundbreaking data aggregation company that came out of an epidemiology unit in Boston Children’s Hospital.

It initially held the commercial license for HealthMap, software that looks at thousands of data sources to map outbreaks of disease.

In a similar vein, the company has worked on projects crawling social media specifically for salient information about drug efficacy, side effects and misuse. 

In research published in May 2014, scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital and a number of other institutions showed how tweeted reports of adverse effects (AEs) could be identified with much greater frequency than reports via the FDA’s traditional methods.

Looking at just 23 common drugs over six months, 6.9m tweets reporting AEs were identified. A mere 61,000 of these were analysed with 4,400 seen as genuine.

1,400 AEs were reported via the FDA’s normal channels during this six month period.

The researchers did offer a word of caution, stating that at this early stage, low volume drugs would be easier to track, given the complex nature of tweets which makes them difficult to analyse at scale. Nevertheless, the potential is clear.

Medwatcher Social is a similar project by Epidemico, aiming at improving upon the FDA’s adverse reaction database.

Because of the large amount of data filtering required and the fact that not all posts can be parsed correctly (the range of the English language means false positives for any given disease are inevitable), MedWatcher tweets back at posts that could be adverse effect reports and prompts the user to give more detail via an online form.

Interestingly, other Epidemico research has suggested that countries with direct-to-consumer advertising for pharma products see higher reports of AEs on social media.

Perhaps this reflects the influence of television on social media usage that brands in other sectors have long sought to capitalise on.


Sentiment analysis to improve patient care

Research from Massachusetts General Hospital has found that lower 30 day re-admission rates correlate with positive sentiment on social media and hospital ratings sites.

In the US market, where social media plays more of a part in patient decision making, soliciting feedback on social media is a valuable way for hospitals to improve on care.

How will this change regulation?

The FDA has published draft guidance for social media use by pharmaceutical companies. Pharma is traditionally the area of healthcare that lags in marketing due to the risks associated with breaching regulations.

FDA guidance points out that with pharmaceutical companies responsible for reporting any known adverse drug reactions, soliciting feedback on social (even by just setting up an account) may leave them responsible for anything reported and not acted on.

With such risks in the market, it’s unsurprising that, for now, advances in social media and healthcare are still breaking out from the realms of academia.

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For more on how healthcare marketing is changing, download Healthcare Study: Organizing Marketing in the Digital Age.