Palo Alto, CA — A study published this month in JAMA shows how scientists can use our aggregated search engine queries to detect unreported prescription drug side effects and drug-drug interactions before they are found by the Food and Drug Administration’s warning system.

Here’s out the study worked: scientists at Microsoft, Stanford and Columbia University used automated software tools to examine queries by six million Internet users taken from web search logs in 2010. The approach they took is a lot like Google Flu Trends reporting, which uses changes in search behavior to warn of a rise in the prevalence of the flu.

In this case, the scientists weren’t looking for flu symptoms. They were looking for searches connected to an antidepressant, paroxetine, and a cholesterol lowering drug, pravastatin, to determine if taking the two drugs together created any novel side effects.

Their theory: the combination of the two drugs may cause high blood sugar

The scientists were able to explore 82 million individual searches for drug, symptom and condition information. They tracked those searchers over time – first, identifying individual or combination searches for the drugs, then looking for the likelihood that those searchers would also lookup hyperglycemia or ~80 of its symptoms (like “high blood sugar” or “blurry vision.”)

They found that people who had Googled both drug names were significantly more likely to search for terms related to hyperglycemia than were those who searched for just one of the drugs.

By using the way we already manage our own health to learn about the ancillary impact of treatments, these scientists challenged the cumbersome systems we currently rely on.

Think about what we do today: the F.D.A. asks physicians to report side effects through the Adverse Event Reporting System. But it only works when a physician notices a problem and reports it. In clinical trials, patients are often asked about specific symptoms. No surprise that asking people to think about whether or not they’ve had an upset stomach might make them over-anxious and more likely to report the symptom than they would be unaided.

This new approach could supplement those tracking tools with seamless, ambient learning.

Posted by: Leigh Householder

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation and Insights for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for building and scaling a global team of healthcare experts who together help life science leaders better understand the complex lives, influences and expectations of their customers. Specifically, they uncover actionable insights that fuel empathy and creativity; lead co-creation events that let marketers learn from peers, trends, and new possibilities; and help clients identify the most valuable and useful new customer experiences to create.

Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for nearly 20 years.She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she held several leadership roles at our largest agency, GSW.  There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business.

Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes.

A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. This year, she led over 250 experts to experts to focus on the most important changes in the commercial, consumer, marketing, digital and healthcare landscapes. (See reports at

Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice and Top 10 Innovation Catalysts of 2017 by MM&M, Leigh also was recognized  as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.