Drug side effects? There’s an app for that

About 6,000 users have registered on the agency's openFDA platform, it announced on Twitter this week.

MedWatcher Social is kind of like a detective for drug side effects.

The app scours social media outlets, like Facebook and Twitter, for people who mention an adverse event caused by a drug they’re taking. Then, it compares the side effects it finds to the Food and Drug Administration’s adverse events data.

But to grab that government information, MedWatcher Social taps into openFDA, the agency’s effort to provide application programming interfaces, or APIs, that get at its data sets on drug adverse events, recalls, device adverse events and labeling. Since FDA put out openFDA less than a year ago, dozens of apps that have sprouted up around the APIs, FDA Chief Health Informatics Officer Taha Kass-Hout told FedScoop. And just this week, FDA announced it had reached 6,000 registered users of openFDA.

To be sure, all that data was available previously. However, it might have been difficult to stitch together – it could be in formats that are outdated or difficult to compare to one another, or there could be multiple versions of some reports.


“It’s a lot of work for someone who just wants to ask the question, ‘Show me the adverse effects of drug X,'” Kass-Hout, the brains behind openFDA, told FedScoop. When they were preparing to launch openFDA, FDA experts had to “clean” the data to make it easier to draw from.


“We’re being able to see openFDA start really entering the market in a way that’s more consumer friendly,” FDA Chief Health Informatics Officer Taha Kass-Hout said. (FDA)

To a tech novice, an API looks like a Web address, but when developers use it in their code, openFDA’s APIs act kind of like a search engine. A developer can send a query to the API, and, just like Google, the API sends back results of that query.

When the agency unveiled openFDA with much fanfare last year at Health Datapalooza in Washington, D.C., it partnered with a few tech groups — including Epidemico, the company that put out MedWatcher Social — to demo what the APIs could do. Clark Freifeld, co-founder of Epidemico, told FedScoop that openFDA helps MedWatcher Social skip a step.

Before openFDA, “we had to parse through [files] and do a lot of extra work in order to gather that data and integrate that into the product,” Freifeld said.


Research AE, a free app that allows users to peruse millions of drug and medical device adverse events, made its debut at the event. With Research AE, users could search the name of a drug, like Humira or Nexium, and the app’s site would display in graphs and charts information about its reported reactions.

“There’s a treasure trove of information…that can be driven by this open data,” said Brian Norris, a nurse-turned-technologist who launched the application under his Indiana-based startup Social Health Insights.

OpenFDA is part of a trend sweeping the government, particularly after the White House issued an executive order directing agencies to make their data available in open, machine-readable formats. And as agencies across the government release more readable data, innovators have been thinking up new ways to use it. Indeed, in Washington, D.C., physicians have tapped National Park Service data to prescribe “outdoor activity” to help treat children with obesity, asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“You would probably never think of that as a possible source of data unless you already knew something about what’s going on there in that industry,” said Marc DaCosta, chairman and co-founder of Enigma. His startup aggregates public data from governments and the private sector, and allows users to search its troves without being encumbered by barriers between different agencies, organizations or departments.

While he said he doesn’t have much experience with openFDA, he credits the program with trying to interact with the audience it’s trying to reach. OpenFDA has developed active communities on GitHub and Stack Exchange.


“Certainly what marks the initiative of the FDA as unique is thinking about developer communities and utilizing things like GitHub and Stack Exchange and other services tools in the developer communities in order to engage them, and to do this in a way that’s fitting into a pre-existing ecosystem,” he said.

Indeed, looking forward, Kass-Hout said the openFDA team is working with those communities to guide the program’s future. For one, he’s working to further clean up the data sets the APIs draw from as a result of feedback his team has received.

Kass-Hout said he loves hearing about new projects that are tapping into the APIs. One example is Recall Guide, an app that helps people track information about drugs they’re taking. It uses an openFDA API for charting demographic and symptom information about the various drugs.

Overall, JR Oakes, a marketing director for North Carolina-based Consultwebs who conceived of the app, said he thinks the federal and local governments do a good job pushing to open data.

“I think the ability to just pull the data and understand the data is just going to get better and better,” he said. “I think the more data that’s available, the better.”


Apps like Recall Guide encourage Kass-Hout.

“If we can target the middle tier of researchers and software developers to make it easy for them to query and interact with the data in a way that’s consistent and can scale, they can they do can they do something that amazing that’s really beyond our amazing,” he said.

He added, “And they’re starting to do that.”

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