FDA Monitors Social Media for Drug Abuse Trends

By Pat Anson, Editor

A recent letter in The New England Journal of Medicine sheds some light on how the Food and Drug Administration tracks changing patterns of drug use on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

The FDA began monitoring social media – what it calls “proactive pharmacovigilance” – about a decade ago, primarily as an early warning system for adverse events involving medication.

More recently, the agency has used active surveillance of social media to study the abuse of opioid painkillers and gabapentinoids, a class of nerve medication that includes gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica). Gabapentinoids are increasingly being prescribed as “safer” alternatives to opioids.

“To understand why usage patterns are shifting, the FDA used a social media ‘listening platform’ to set up a dashboard to track traditional social media sites (such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs, and forums) that we monitor for conversations about opioids,” explained FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, and co-authors Douglas Throckmorton, MD, and Janet Woodcock, MD, two senior FDA officials.

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“When we find mention of additional substances on social media or elsewhere, we conduct more specific searches for relevant, publicly available conversations through our listening platform, as well as through Reddit, Google, and various online forums that don’t require registration or subscription. These may include forums associated with drug misuse or abuse, such as Bluelight.org and talk.drugabuse.com.”

What did the FDA learn about gabapentinoids on social media? Preliminary findings indicate the abuse of gabapentinoids isn’t widespread, but their use continues to increase, especially for gabapentin.

The FDA is also actively monitoring the social media sites of kratom vendors. As PNN reported last month, one vendor received a warning letter from the FDA for sharing on its Facebook page a CNN story about the herbal supplement as a possible treatment for pain and opioid addiction. The vendor only said the story was “positive news for kratom,” but the FDA said that amounted to the illegal marketing of an unapproved drug.

“The FDA thus faces challenges as we confront the opioid crisis and monitor changing patterns of use, abuse, and misuse of other products,” Gottlieb wrote. “The right approach to regulating these substances is best determined through a multifaceted system of pharmacovigilance, using various tools to mine traditional and new sources of epidemiologic data, assess products’ pharmacologic properties, and evaluate the social contexts in which substances are being used.”

To be clear, the FDA’s surveillance of social media isn’t very different from what private enterprise is already doing. NUVI, for example, provide social media monitoring to companies “to get real-time insights into what people are saying about your brand online.”  Companies also sell software that track keywords, hashtags and user profiles on social media. And PatientsLikeMe, the largest online patient network with over 600,000 members, sells some of its data to the FDA and healthcare industry.

At PNN, we do stories all the time about opioids, kratom, gabapentinoids and other drugs. Is Pain News Network under surveillance by the FDA? Are reader comments on our website and social media being monitored? We don’t know. But in an age of growing concern about Internet privacy and the sharing of personal data, we thought you should know that the answer could be yes.