Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Searching Social Media for Drug Side Effects

Tech companies are trying to make sense of patients’ postings online

For decades, pharmaceutical companies and regulators have relied on reports from doctors and patients to monitor the side effects of drugs. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration collects hundreds of thousands of these records each year, that’s a sliver of patients’ negative experiences. Researchers estimate more than 90 percent go unreported. It can take years for the FDA to detect a pattern of problems that leads to changes in how a drug is prescribed.

Some technology companies are betting that combing through patients’ social media posts will yield crucial insights that drugmakers will buy. “Hundreds of millions of people are waking up every morning and writing about their personal experiences,” says Ido Hadari, chief executive officer of Treato, a six-year-old startup based outside Tel Aviv. Treato scours thousands of sites for patient feedback, from Facebook and Twitter to small patient forums. The challenge is to extrapolate meaningful signals from all that noise, says Hadari: “It’s a huge pile of coal filled with diamonds.”