Yelp For Health?
March 9, 2013

Yelp For Health?

Only a decade ago, if you had a bad experience at a restaurant or local business, the reach of your ire was limited typically to the 10-15 people you might come in contact with in the short-term after your experience.

With the rise of social networking sites like Facebook and Yelp, our outreach has increased exponentially. And this outreach has been recognized by researchers as having benefits outside of broadcasting simple displeasure with the server at your local Applebee’s.

When the Food and Drug Administration approves a pharmaceutical for general use, the drug undergoes a strict vetting process to determine potential side effects. Unfortunately, many side effects go unnoticed until the prescription is already dispersed in wide release.

Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine and Microsoft Research wanted to explore the ubiquity of social networking and how it might help lead to better reporting of side effects experienced as a result of taking medication.

To conduct their study, researchers culled over data obtained from the web search history of over six million Internet user volunteers. The volunteers allowed the researchers to install a Microsoft plug-in on their computers to monitor their history. In all, 82 million drug-symptom and condition searches were made by the participants in the study.

In real world terms, the research team was able to identify a previously unreported drug interaction that occurred between two commonly prescribed drugs. Ten percent of patients who were prescribed paroxetine (Paxil) for depression and pravastatin (Pravachol) for cholesterol maintenance performed searches for symptoms of hyperglycemia. Hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, can trigger symptoms of blurred vision and deyhydration.

These symptoms had not been previously identified by either the drug manufacturers or the Food and Drug Administration. The reason these symptoms had gone unreported is because drug approvals don’t necessarily include exhaustive studies of each and every potential combination of drugs that a patient may have been prescribed.

The Food and Drug Administration already has protocols in place to recognize and identify negative drug interactions. Their Adverse Event Reporting System, however, relies upon voluntary reports from doctors, pharmacists, patients and drug companies. The ability to monitor these web searches circumnavigates the general lag time that occurs from reporting made to the FDA.

This study is not the first time the Internet has been utilized to track health related data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created an app they call the FluView Influenza-Like Illness Activity app. The app takes data reported by health care providers to create a geographic map of flu-like activity and trends.

Additionally, Google Flu Trends is an algorithm established by the search engine that seeks out key words deemed indicative of flu activity. Words such as fever, influenza and flu are collected and aggregated to estimate flu activity by state.

If the invasive nature of following your individual searches is not your cup of Theraflu, you might enjoy Help Remedies attempt at tracking flu activity. Their Facebook app, called “Help I Have The Flu,” will scan through your list of friends to try and identify which of them most likely got you sick.

According to an article in TIME, “The app looks for friends’ comments and statuses relating to flu activity, like ‘coughing’ and ‘sneezing’ and even tracks trends such as late night posts, since lack of sleep is considered a risk factor for getting sick. The result? A list of risky individuals from whom you can steer clear. Or, perhaps just as important, blame if you come down with a bug. After all, nothing is more comforting than being empowered to point fingers.”

The study, published in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association, points out that individuals who search terms associated with possible drug interactions may not, themselves, be suffering the effects and may just be performing a search based on a news story they read or because a family member or friend is having issues with their medications.

Despite this, the authors state they see “a potential public health benefit in listening to such signals, and integrating them with other sources of information.”

The Internet, now entering its 3rd decade of popular usage among the general public, is still fairly undefined. With studies like this, I’m reminded of Edward R. Murrow’s comment made at the advent of the television: “This thing can teach.” It appears the lost potential of the TV is finding a home on the Internet.

Image Credit: Elnur / Shutterstock

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