Is It Time to Jump on the Social Media Bandwagon? Posted March 7, 2016For many companies, using Twitter to help introduce new products or Facebook to respond to customer complaints is nothing new. It makes sense because more than 90% of U.S. adults use the Internet and Facebook has one and a half billion active users. Every day, Twitter users share more than 500 million tweets, and Facebook users watch more than 8 billion videos. These are mass communications media that also offer rich details about small population segments and even individuals. An increasing number of studies have demonstrated the relevance and value of social media for epidemiology, drug safety and pharmacovigilance. That’s why pharmaceutical companies must recognize social media as an untapped resource for post-marketing pharmacovigilance. Yes, pharma is already on the social media bandwagon for branding and marketing purposes, but it must expand its usage to incorporate PV and drug safety. Clinical activities around the world are making clear the value and usability of social media data in drug safety and other areas of healthcare research. HealthMap, an online mapping tool that uses algorithms to search through social media and networks, local news reports and government websites, detected an outbreak of a “mystery hemorrhagic fever spreading in Guinea nine days before the World Health Organization issued its first statement on the outbreak.” The tool caught the earliest signals of an Ebola outbreak, and within six months, HealthMap had collected, classified and visualized more than 13,000 alerts. The information allowed healthcare agencies and epidemiologists to see where the disease could spread and which areas were high risk. In another study conducted in June 2015, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Merck “built the beginnings of ‘digital phenotype’ of insomnia and other sleep disorders based on data from Twitter.” Researchers used publicly available Twitter data of 896 active Twitter users who had tweeted sleep-related words. They compared the first group with a second group of 934 users who did not use sleep-related words. The study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, “is one of the first to look at relationships between social media use and sleep issues, and – based on assessments the sentiments expressed in users’ tweets – gives preliminary hints that patients with sleep disorders may be a greater risk of psychosocial issues.” Today, much of what is reported in terms of drug safety comes from spontaneous adverse event reports, medical records, insurance claims, observational research and generally accessible journals. These sources each have their limitations, including: Under-reporting of events – less than 10% of adverse events are reported Incomplete data or suspect data quality Limited geographic coverage – most data come from the United States and Europe Lack of timeliness – most commercial data sources have a lag time of 9-12 months In 2014, another social media study found that more than “three times as many adverse drug reactions were reported on Twitter in a given time period than were reported to the FDA.” Researchers collected 6.9 million tweets in a six-month period looking for keywords related to 23 commonly used drugs. They randomly selected 61,000 tweets to analyze manually, identifying 4,400 that were adverse events. During that same six-month period, the FDA received roughly 1,400 drug events. The study confirmed that social media posts contain significant information that may help pharmas gain insights into the safety of existing drugs. Researchers concluded, “Patients reporting AEs on Twitter showed a range of sophistication when describing their experience.” Researchers also suggested that Twitter users were not using Twitter to simply discuss the event among their followers, but were using Twitter as a way to report it. The biggest advantage for social media may be in the timeliness of the posts. Adverse drug events are typically reported on Twitter near the time they actually happen. The near-real-time reports are also direct from the patient providing a richer source of data than reports filtered by clinicians. When social media is combined with more traditional data sources, pharma companies have a much broader and clearer picture about the safety and benefits of their drugs. With the FDA showing increased interest in social media as an AE reporting tool, it’s no longer a question of if pharmas will need to use social data in PV, but when or how soon. Pharmas should begin to develop the capabilities to collect and manage the data, match it and compare with other sources, and enhance their signal-detection capabilities.