Data Visualization

Drug Side-Effect Warnings as Word Clouds

I’m always amazed at how happy the voice on TV commercials sounds when describing a litany of horrible-sounding side-effects from a prescription medication. I was just watching the nice cartoon lady telling me about Abilify when I overheard this:

<queue birds chirping> <nice music playing> Contact your doctor if you have uncontrollable muscle movements, as these could become permanent. Other risks include decreases in white blood cells, which can be serious, dizziness upon standing, seizures —

Errr, wait, what the fuck? Can we not have the nice guitar strumming along with a quaint melody in the background while you tell me that if I take this pill I might not be able to control my muscles and might start having seizures? Your soothing, monotonous tone is both putting me to sleep and freaking me out at the same time.

We’ve all heard these side-effect warnings in commercials, or seen them on packaging in the tiniest tiny print. It’s not uncommon to hear some soothing voice say something like “Side effects include headache, drowsiness, sore throat, and death.” Uhhhh. I’m ok with most of those, but one of these things is not like the other.

And yet the commercials or fine print don’t really tell you what’s likely to be a side effect versus what’s unlikely. Turns out, though, that if you do some research, the significance of the side effects of various prescription pills are available online. You just have to dig. For example, here’s the product sheet for Zoloft. And it has a section about side effects that looks like this:

Now we’re getting some real numbers. If only there was a way to quickly see what the most common side effects of various drugs were at a glance.

Here’s my take on redesigning the information presentation. We’ll start off with a fun one, which is the popular anti-depressant Zoloft:

Ain’t that a bitch? I guess the good news is if you’re nauseous, then ejaculation failure might not be that big a concern. The side-effects are sized by computing the difference in the percentages between the placebo group and the group taking the medication. In this case 14% of patients taking Zoloft experienced ejaculation failure, versus only 1% in the control group.

Here’s another anti-depressant, Abilify (source data):

And now of course we have other drugs to counteract some of these side-effects, so why not trying to counteract the negative Zoloft effects by popping a Viagra? Here are the new side effects you get to enjoy (source data):

And once that Viagra’s worn off you might be looking for a cigarette. But try Nicotrol (details) instead, you’ll get to take your chances with the following side effects:

Now at a glance you can see what you need to worry about and what you don’t. I imagine these beautiful labels on the side of the prescription boxes 🙂 Well, at least I can dream.


5 thoughts on “Drug Side-Effect Warnings as Word Clouds

  1. Pingback: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is for Hackers - Dr. Jocelyn Sze | Dr. Jocelyn Sze

  2. Danilo says:

    Are you sure the values are expressed in %?
    I think the value expresses the number of cases, so the probability is calculated as number of the cases/number of trials:
    Headhache (zoloft): 25/2799, near 0,9%
    Am I wrong?

  3. Nicole says:

    Where is your ‘like’ button? Inspired by Tufte and a search brought me here, as a nurse, I approve.

  4. @Danilo – they are in percentages. I didn’t include enough of the product sheet PDF in that screenshot, but the table is clearly labeled as “Percentage of Patients Reporting Event” if you look at the linked PDF

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