Applying Machine Learning in Distributed Data Networks for Pharmacoepidemiologic and Pharmacovigilance Studies: Opportunities, Challenges, and Considerations

Date Published:

2022 05


Increasing availability of electronic health databases capturing real-world experiences with medical products has garnered much interest in their use for pharmacoepidemiologic and pharmacovigilance studies. The traditional practice of having numerous groups use single databases to accomplish similar tasks and address common questions about medical products can be made more efficient through well-coordinated multi-database studies, greatly facilitated through distributed data network (DDN) architectures. Access to larger amounts of electronic health data within DDNs has created a growing interest in using data-adaptive machine learning (ML) techniques that can automatically model complex associations in high-dimensional data with minimal human guidance. However, the siloed storage and diverse nature of the databases in DDNs create unique challenges for using ML. In this paper, we discuss opportunities, challenges, and considerations for applying ML in DDNs for pharmacoepidemiologic and pharmacovigilance studies. We first discuss major types of activities performed by DDNs and how ML may be used. Next, we discuss practical data-related factors influencing how DDNs work in practice. We then combine these discussions and jointly consider how opportunities for ML are affected by practical data-related factors for DDNs, leading to several challenges. We present different approaches for addressing these challenges and highlight efforts that real-world DDNs have taken or are currently taking to help mitigate them. Despite these challenges, the time is ripe for the emerging interest to use ML in DDNs, and the utility of these data-adaptive modeling techniques in pharmacoepidemiologic and pharmacovigilance studies will likely continue to increase in the coming years.