Social Media May Inform Product Safety

A public workshop held by the FDA examined how social media and mobile health may inform medical product safety and efficacy.

A recent public workshop held by the FDA examined how social media and mobile health may inform medical product safety and efficacy.

The FDA is aiming to investigate the product safety implications of what it calls “2 of the most ubiquitous and fastest growing data sources”—mobile health and social computing data.

FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research deputy director Henry Francis noted in his keynote address that social media is an important tool to track health-related phenomena that break suddenly and spread quickly.

For example, if a specific drug or symptom is suddenly trending on Facebook or Twitter, then further investigation by the FDA may be warranted.

Francis suggested that these types of posts can help pinpoint disease outbreaks and sites of tainted drugs. Combine those posts with geolocation data, and the FDA can react to these cases even more quickly.

In addition to monitoring social media, the FDA is tracking information about drug side effects through mobile health apps.

One app that the FDA has been using for years is called RAPID, Francis said. It gathers physician-generated photos, audio descriptions, and videos of patients’ reactions to medications. RAPID was first put to use following the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.

Physicians are the primary users of RAPID, but that presents some challenges for the public, Francis explained. For example, public information is often written and spoken in layman’s terms, which can be difficult to translate into medical jargon.

Francis used the word “sleepy” as an example. He challenged attendees to explain exactly what that means and how they would evaluate it.

Another challenge for the FDA is identifying websites, social media platforms, and apps that are most valuable for health data collection.

Francis said the FDA tends to focus on Twitter and Facebook as social media sources, but there are more than 150 potential sites that it could consider, and smaller communities such as transgender populations often use those niche social media platforms.

Regardless of which online platforms the FDA decides to monitor, Francis said it must counterbalance its enthusiasm for gathering product information with each patient’s privacy.

The public workshop was held in collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Center of Excellence in Regulatory Science and Innovation.