New FDA App Aims to Provide Mobile Drug Information

APRIL 16, 2018
The FDA recently released a new app to highlight newly approved drugs, and to give some quick information on medications for a user to look up. The app, more or less, is a lite version of their [email protected] website. 
 
[email protected] is essentially a website that highlights approved medications by the FDA, searched for via drug name, the active ingredient, or application number. It's not really a drug information database in the clinical sense, as when you find a drug, you get more information based on what is currently approved on the market, who makes it (manufacturers), and then the approved package insert. The package insert is just a PDF, and not really searchable, unfortunately.
 
The app is pretty barebones and has some features I think could have been a little fined tuned. Case in point, when you look up a drug name, the search tool doesn't have a smart pattern to detect spelling, and to give you a recommendation. So, if you don't know how to spell the drug, you're out of luck, and there is not a way to sort it alphabetically (which the web version does have) since it is a lighter version. Another issue is the fact the drug information is just a PDF. There really could be a different way to present the information, that could be used to jump to pertinent sections (e.g., MOA, indications).
 
Overall, is this an app most pharmacists need? I would say, no. I mean, if you are looking to access medication package inserts, you're better off using DailyMed. If you are a pharmacist that is actively looking for a tool to track which manufacturers are making what medication, and want the background data (supplemental files) provided by the FDA at your fingertips, this may be an app for you. So, it's a niched app. 
 
This isn't the FDA's first foray into the mobile app space. I really like the FDA Drug Shortages app, made in conjunction with ASHP. That app is really useful to track medication shortages, and see what is going on, and management strategies. The user interface is similar, but strikes me a bit more easy to navigate. So the FDA has had experience with making, and running apps that use their website data. 
 
That being the case, I feel that this new product could have probably been a better creation. Take for instance the statement from the FDA about why they made this app, from the FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD, "Consumers are embracing digital health technologies to inform everyday decisions. From fitness trackers to mobile applications tracking insulin administration, these digital tools can empower consumers with a wealth of valuable health information. Advancing mobile apps that inform people about their health and medical choices represents a significant public health opportunity and is a high priority for the FDA... The FDA is continuously seeking ways to bring information to consumers in more accessible formats. Today, with the launch of the [email protected] Express mobile app, we’re bringing the public important information about drugs in an easy-to-use, mobile format. We hope that by making this important health information more easily accessible we can help empower patients and providers in making their treatment decisions."
 
I am a bit biased in my thoughts on this app. For one, I think there are many healthcare professionals, and pharmacists in particular, called upon in their organizations, and workplace to help create helpful patient handouts on drug information. We often turn to package inserts or other drug databases to access information, trim it down, and write it in a manner accessible to most patients. The fact of the matter is health literacy is a problem for many patients. So, when I read that statement about the FDA wanting to engage in the digital space to create an easy to use the platform to get information more readily accessible to patients and providers, I feel it fell short. 
 
I have served as a clinical writer for a company where we set out to take information and put it online in an easy format. The mission was always to make it easily accessible, and understandable from a patient perspective, with easy to understand language, and avoiding jargon. I don't think giving patients the package insert meets that goal. The other item to consider is many companies are also moving to crowd-sourced information supplied from patients. This includes identifying rates of drug adverse effects or time to therapeutic effect. In an era of digital health integration, this is something I think most companies really need to leverage to stay relevant.
 
I feel the FDA is on the right track engaging individuals in the digital space. They need to, but I think that they are not using the technology to its full use, and could benefit from outside resources or developers to take their data, and present it better. A more friendly user interface, and experience would be my first suggestion, and then a way of showing the data in a more meaningful fashion. That second part, I think, would take work, but app designers could definitely find pharmacists, and other health practitioners passionate enough to make it happen. I just hope their next app takes these factors into consideration, if they keep on this path.
 
Reference:
US Food & Drug Administration. FDA In Brief: FDA launches mobile app to increase access to information about drugs [news release]. FDA in Brief. March 22, 2018. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/FDAInBrief/ucm602294.htm. Accessed April 16, 2018.
 


Timothy Aungst, PharmD
Timothy Dy Aungst, PharmD, is an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at MCPHS University. He graduated from Wilkes University Nesbitt School of Pharmacy and completed a PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Residency at St. Luke's University Hospital, and then a Clinical Geriatric Fellowship at MCPHS University. He is passionate about the rise of technology in health care and its application to pharmacy. He has published primarily on the role of mobile technology and mHealth, and made multiple national and international presentations on those topics. He blogs at TheDigitalApothecary.com, and you can find him on Twitter @TDAungst.
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