GSK monitored parents' online vaccination discussions for 2 months

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has been listening to parents' concerns about childhood vaccinations. Really listening. In fact, it has used big data analytics to sift through thousands of comments from Internet chat forums to try to get a better grasp of exactly what objections there are and how to best face them.

According to The Wall Street Journal CIO blog, for two months, the vaccine maker had a company apply text analytics to conversations on public discussion boards on and No one but Glaxo and its partner knew what it was doing, but GSK said it collected only anonymous remarks and kept no other kinds of information that might identify who the authors were. While the questions and remarks were left on an Internet forum that anyone could read, there has still been some "big brother" labels attached to the process.

Vaccination rates are always a big concern in protecting against childhood diseases. GSK makes one of the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella that has proven effective in a recent outbreak of measles in Wales that has infected more than 1,000 children. But to be effective it first requires parents getting children vaccinated. And GSK says it needs to better understand what objections parents are throwing up to know how best to address them.

While the comments were the kinds of things that have been discussed for some time around vaccinations, like whether there are ties to autism, when they should be given and how effective they are, GSK said the analytics did allow it to refine the process. It used the software to group the thousands of posts into topics like "safety" and "comfort" and feelings, like "happiness" and "unhappiness."

The FDA has yet to release its rules on how drugmakers should use social media, leaving companies to figure out how to proceed the best they can. Glaxo spokeswoman Anna Padula pointed out to The Wall Street Journal that drug regulators put strict restrictions on the kinds of conversations that drugmakers can have with patients in person or online, and so companies are looking for new ways to find out what patients think. "That's why it's important for us to have this research directly from patients, so we can hear what they're saying and address it through doctors."

- read the WSJ piece