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The Internet Is Better At Discovering Drug Side Effects Than People Paid To Do It

By / 03.08.13

Here’s your not-at-all scary medical news for the day: Some researchers have discovered that the FDA, you know, the guys the government pays to test drugs and tell us whether or not they’ll kill us, is not as good at spotting side effects as… uh… Google.

Why, precisely? Because the FDA only listens to doctors, and it turns out doctors suck at this kind of thing:

Using automated software tools to examine queries by six million Internet users taken from Web search logs in 2010, the researchers looked for searches relating to an antidepressant, paroxetine, and a cholesterol lowering drug, pravastatin. They were able to find evidence that the combination of the two drugs caused high blood sugar. …The F.D.A. asks physicians to report side effects through a system known as the Adverse Event Reporting System. But its scope is limited by the fact that data is generated only when a physician notices something and reports it.

To be fair, one of the problems in pharmaceutical research is that some side effects are so rare, they’ll only turn up once millions of people start using the drugs. For example, there’s a tiny chance that Viagra will make you deaf. The side effect is so rare there are less than 100 reported cases in the US, and nobody is sure why, it just kinda… well… happens.

Nonetheless, it’s a good reminder that the more data you have in your sample, the better the results are. Of course, now this also means there will be some guy on Fox News screaming about how the FDA needs to be shut down and we should just let Google handle it, but you can’t have everything.


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