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Group Says Free Drug Samples Endanger Public

May 13, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

Although the pharmaceutical industry maintains that drug samples are meant to assist uninsured and low-income patients, the practice of physicians in this country giving out such samples has long been debated. ScienceDaily wrote that in a PLoS Medicine essay, two experts have said that this practice "has many serious disadvantages and is as anachronistic as bloodletting and high colonic irrigations."

Susan Chimonas, a researcher at the Center on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, New York, and Jerome Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a distinguished professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, wrote the essay and argue the tradition is "not effective in improving drug access for the indigent, does not promote rational drug use, and raises the cost of care," quoted ScienceDaily.

Chimonas and Kassirer cite research that indicates target groups are probably not going to receive freebies over insured patients, pointing out that many free samples, "are appropriated by physicians for personal or family use," reported Science Daily. Also, according to the two, one study found that close to half of the industry sales reps surveyed admitted to either using samples themselves or doling them out to friends and relatives, proving that samples are both misused and given to the wrong demographic.

The two also found that samples do not necessarily lower patient cost. "Indeed, evidence shows that patients who received free samples had higher out-of-pocket costs than their counterparts who were not given free samples," reported ScienceDaily, citing the essay. Because companies look to earn back costly marketing through increased pricing, samples only really serve to raise health care prices.

In January 2008 we discussed a study by University of Chicago researchers in which they concluded that free drug samples cost patients in the long run.  Apparently, patients given free samples tend to spend nearly 40 percent more on medications in the first six months and 20 percent more in the next six months, running significantly higher out-of-pocket expenses versus those not receiving free samples. That study appeared in the journal Medical Care and followed an earlier report revealing samples are more likely to go to insured and the wealthy than to the needy. And, despite pharmaceutical industry’s claims to the contrary, a study of prescription use of nearly 33,000 U.S. residents in 2003 found the neediest were the least likely to receive samples. In truth, the billions of dollars in free drug samples distributed by pharmaceutical companies are meant to win patient and doctor loyalty.

The recent findings confirm that handing out free samples risks poor quality of health care because, citing one such example, when lower income patients are given a freebie starter pack and a prescription, prohibitive drug costs lead to the patients to cease treatment, explained ScienceDaily. Chimonas and Kassirer stated, "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the prime motivation behind the provision of free samples is marketing," quoted Science Daily.

The writers also stated that physician-prescribing practices are significantly influenced by free samples, which are proven to be a successful way in which industry sales reps can tout drug maker products.  Because of this, said ScienceDaily, the authors are urging the medical profession to cease accepting and distributing free drug samples.

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