Every day, snivelling, coughing festering contagions plop in front of computers in hopes of figuring out what the hell is wrong — for free. So it's not entirely surprising that scientists — for the first time — were able to find significant evidence of unreported prescription drug side effects faster than any of the US Federal Drug Administration's own methods. And it's all thanks to our ailing internet search queries.
Using data from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo search engines, the Stanford and Columbia University joint research team sifted though six million users' internet search queries (which are forever saved in web search logs) and looked for search related to the antidepressant paroxetine and the cholesterol-lowering drug pravastin.
They found that users who had searched for both of these drugs were also 10 per cent more likely to search for hyperglycaemia or one of its many symptoms. This number may seem small, but as the New York Times notes:
The researchers said they were surprised by the strength of the "signal" that they detected in the searches and argued that it would be a valuable tool for the F.D.A. to add to its current system for tracking adverse effects. "There is a potential public health benefit in listening to such signals," they wrote in the paper, "and integrating them with other sources of information."
Currently, the FDA documents interactions and side effects through the Adverse Event Reporting System, which only obtains new information when a physician notices something and goes on to report it. So while the FDA may have the tools to handle interactions as they come, they're increasingly reliant on this massive deposit of public data, the possibilities of which are only starting to become realised.
So search away, sicklings — it's for the greater good. [New York Times]