Potential Drug Side Effects Identified in Search Engine Queries: Study

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By: Martha Garcia | Published: March 14th, 2013

Information provided in search engine queries submitted to Google, Yahoo and Bing may provide important clues about potential drug interactions and side effects much earlier than the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System, according to the findings of new research.  

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association linked internet search log activity with unreported side effects of certain medication.

The large scale study involved a review of data from an anonymous internet search log during 2010, involving searches related to the drug pairs Paxil and Prevachol. Researchers examined 82 million individual searches from more than 6 million users looking for information on one or both of the drugs, along with searches for hyperglycemia and 80 of its other symptoms.

The study focused on information obtained from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo search engines and was conducted in partnership with scientists from Microsoft, Stanford and Columbia University.

Web searches including Paxil, an antidepressant, and Prevachol, a cholesterol lowering drug, suggested that the two medications used in combination caused high blood sugar, according to the search keywords and combinations.

Users searching for both drugs in combination within a 12 month period were 10% more likely to also search for terms related to hyperglycemia than users who searched for one drug alone.

Researchers found searches for symptoms linked to both drugs were more likely to conduct the searches within a short time frame. Nearly 30% conducted searches on the same day, 20% during the same week and an astounding 50% of users conducted the search within the same month.

Drug interactions and adverse side effects are typically identified by the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS). FAERS is a database which contains all the information connected to adverse side effects and medication errors reported by healthcare professionals or voluntarily reported by consumers. Most experts conclude that the FAERS system information accounts for approximately 1 to 10% of all prescription drug interactions and side effects.

Researchers determined using anonymized web search logs of prescription medication and symptoms can offer signals to drug interactions and are an inexpensive and easy collection method.

Using search engines and other forms of social media, like comments left on health and medical related websites or message boards may be valuable tools for tracking side effects and adverse events and can positively contribute to the drug safety surveillance program already in place.

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