Do they monitor pharmacy sales to plot diseases? Would it work?

Do “they” (e.g. CDC) monitor sales of OTC medicines at pharmacies to try to track infections/diseases etc? If so, is it a voluntary or mandatory thing - and if the latter is it common? If not, is that because it wouldn’t be practical legally speaking, or is it because it would not be of use medically? Indeed, if it isn’t done, has it been tried at all?

I didn’t notice at first you were referring to OTC drugs, whose uses and abuses by the general population are extremely unlikely to yield useful information.

I’m not sure tracking the purchase of Neosporin would reveal any useful data regarding the spread of infections over having emergency rooms tracking actual infections.

There is some of that done by the suppliers to estimate production needs. But it’s pretty coarse calculating. They know they need to supply more cold and flu medicines in the winter time, but they’re tracking this day by day. Most OTC stuff is general purpose, so I doubt it would highlight any particular disease.

However, physicians are often queried about disease trends. We could do a lot more of that with more EMR systems in place, in theory, but there are considerable hurdles to overcome concerning privacy (even though it’s not really a problem, there is a perception that there will be). As it is, we can track disease very well through pharmacy prescriptions and medical testing, except for the lack of cooperation and privacy concerns already stated.

An epidemiologist for the DC public health system (or maybe it was Montgomery County) told me they did (this was about 5-6 years ago). They paid attention not only to medications, but pre-diagnosis purchases such as thermometers and aspirin/tylenol. A spike in purchases of both of these items could indicate the onset of a flu epidemic. She had other examples, but my memory fails me. Along with this, they also had access to absentee rates at local businesses (including the Pentagon IIRC).

I don’t recall exactly how they monitored it, but I believe they had a group of pharmacies that participated and sent in regular reports.

I disagree in the abstract although I do not know if it actually works. Although I agree that the general population are doing a lot of silly things, if cough syrup sales go up 50% in a region that quite possibly means something (even if the cough syrups are inappropriate for whatever the condition is).

I just read The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, by epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe. He’s also the director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), whose goal is to detect and prevent global pandemics. In the book, he discusses how the use of Google search terms can help monitor the spread of a new disease, as people search for terms like “diarrhea”, “fever” and “cough” as they try and see what may be wrong with them before they decide whether to head to the doctor’s office.

There’s more to it than that, and I don’t remember all the details, but if they can use Google search terms, I don’t see why they (or a state health department, or the CDC) couldn’t use sales numbers of OTC medications in the same way, provided that the pharmacies are tracking that information and sharing it with the right people.

I can’t recommend that book highly enough for anyone interested in medicine, epidemiology, or doomsday virus scenarios.

I was practicing medicine in Milwaukee in the early 1990’s when we had the cryptosporidium outbreak. I knew something unusual was going on when I saw a patient with diarrhea. I’d been off for a few days, so hadn’t noted any trends. After evaluation, I told the patient to go buy some OTC imodium or other diarrhea treatment. He said he’d been to 3 drug stores that day, major ones, and they were all sold out of that stuff.

That was my first inkling that anything was amiss on an epidemiologic level. 24 hours later we were getting news coverage and notifications from the local Dept. of Health about a possible epidemic.

So now if I hear of local pharmacies running out of diarrhea meds, I think infectious disease epidemic.

“You’ve got blocked bowels. They happen to be blocked in the ‘open’ position.”