Scientists Identify Drugs' Side Effects by Analyzing Search Data Collected From Millions of Users

A team of researchers has for the first time found a side effect of a common drug combination by looking at search queries.

shutterstock_1685838-650.jpg

Andy Piatt/Shutterstock/Rebecca J. Rosen

For doctors or patients who notice side effect to a prescription drug (or a combination of several), there's one place to go: the FDA's Adverse Events Reporting System. This is where, once a drug is already on the market, the government can monitor side effects that for one reason or another did not turn up in trials.

The problem is that many patients aren't so forthcoming, and may not report -- to their doctors or the FDA -- minor side effects they notice.

The evolution of health technology. See full coverage

But they will tell someone something: Google (or Bing or Yahoo).

According to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, more than one in 250 people (0.43 percent) searched for one of the 100 best-selling drugs at some point in 2010. And if a whole bunch of those people searching for two of those drugs also search for, say, blurry vision, well, you might have just found out that that particular combination of drugs can cause hyperglycemia.

And that's just what researchers from Microsoft, Columbia, and Stanford found. Digging into a huge mountain of data harnessed from the search bars of consenting users, they found that people who searched for *both* paroxetine (a common antidepressant) and pravastatin (for those with high cholesterol) were more likely to also look for a list of some 80 terms describing symptoms associated with hyperglycemia (pdf) than those taking just one of the medications, who in turn were more likely than those taking neither.

drugcombination-615.jpg

Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association

One question the paper examines is whether it's possible that the results may be skewed by anxious people who Google every which thing they worry about -- and paroxetine is commonly prescribed for anxiety. But, they write, "the data do not support this potential explanation ... [as] there is less of an effect for those who search for paroxetine alone."

The authors liken the use of web-search data to "a large-scale distributed network of sensors for identifying the potential side effects of trugs." Search data won't replace other traditional systems of side-effect monitoring, but it can complement our existing systems. After all, searches are about as direct a line to patients as you're going to get -- and researchers are ready to listen, or, perhaps more accurately, compute.

Presented by

Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In