Recent data from the CDC has indicated that 50% of Americans are taking one prescription drug, and 10% are on 4 or more prescribed medications as well. Taking into consideration the aging population and the movement towards primary prevention with medications, it is likely a larger shift will occur in the next decade.

Coupled with this is the increasingly large role of social media in the daily lives of the social schema of many Americans — and we may have a new form of Drug Surveillance. It comes as no surprise that many patients report their daily status of health online, and include their experiences with their medications as well. But recent data has come out from researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital that Twitter alone could be a treasure trove of data.

Traditionally, adverse drug effects could be reported to the FDA through their Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS). From this, monitoring post clinical trials can be conducted for any issues that may arise. Many medications have been adjusted or withdrawn from the market based on unseen side effects on patients.

But Friefield and colleague’s recent study in Drug Safety demonstrated that patients are increasingly reporting their side effects via Twitter. Utilizing a semi-automated process to identify 23 drug products on Twitter,  approximately 7 million tweets were assessed, with 60,000 evaluated, producing 4,400 identified. Many of the events related to side effects from drugs and how they were responding to therapy.

Another recent study by White and colleague’s in JAMIA also highlighted the use of social media in drug safety analysis. The researchers have highlighted the growing use of social media as a low-cost monitoring tool for federal agencies and drug manufacturers to utilize.

While these studies are sure to spark great interest in the use of social media as a new method to collect post-market safety data, there may be some shortcomings to consider. Foremost is the establishment of a means that is sustainable and works to a degree acceptable for actual data collection. This will most likely be addressed in the next few years, but while it may take time, researchers will have to adapt to new forms of social media that will arise, as others fall out of popularity.

An additional factor will be whether there is bias associated with drug issue reporting. While traditionally it has been clinicians that report adverse drug events, with a reliance of patients there may be other issues that arise. One benefit would be an unobtrusive way to collect data not relying on the FAERS form. On the other hand, the data collected may not be sufficient enough to make meaningful conclusions.  For example, Friefield and colleague’s study identified issues such as the location where a patient reported receiving the influenza vaccination that led to their ‘stomach flu.’

The other issue that may arise is how pharmaceutical companies will deal with reports via social media. In the past, there had been issues with pharmaceutical pages on Facebook. Some companies had brought down those pages in 2011 when Facebook brought down the ‘walls’ protecting them. Issues of liability had been brought up — whether the companies would be forced to investigate claims of adverse drug events reported via social media.

With the significant amount of “passive” data being entered by individuals, it would only make sense we try to analyze it from a healthcare perspective. Right now the disease burn on those using social media is not as high due to the age distribution — but this is something that will change. As the penetrance of social media utilization increases through various age demographics, there will be a massive amount of data waiting to be analyzed.