It's been years (fortunately) since I've needed a prescription for anything more than a simple antibiotic. But when I did, I remember I was always thankful on those occasions when my doctor offered a free sample of a medication to try before (or sometimes instead of) pulling out the prescription pad. I appreciated the chance to see if a medication would work for me, and I was happy for any opportunity to save myself (or, at times, my insurance company) a few dollars. The fact that the samples were invariably for drugs that were still on patent (known as brand name drugs or branded generics) to a particular company certainly escaped me.
Now, a study by Stanford dermatologist Al Lane, MD, highlights the dark side of such free samples, which are provided to doctors by the pharmaceutical companies who make the drugs. The research, along with an accompanying editorial, is published today in JAMA Dermatology. As Lane comments in my release on the work:
Physicians may not be aware of the cost difference between brand-name and generic drugs and patients may not realize that, by accepting samples, they could be unintentionally channeled into subsequently receiving a prescription for a more expensive medication.
Specifically, Lane and medical student Michael Hurley found that dermatologists with access to free drug samples wrote prescriptions for medications with a retail price of about twice that of prescriptions written by dermatologists without access to samples. All of the patients had the same first-time diagnosis of adult acne. The difference is nothing to sniff at - $465 for docs who accepted samples and about $200 for docs who did not. What's more, the overall prescribing patterns of the two groups of physicians showed almost no overlap. Physicians without access to samples prescribed mainly generic drugs (83 percent of the time), whereas those with access to samples prescribed generics much less frequently (21 percent of the time). Only one drug of the top ten most commonly prescribed by physicians without access to samples even made it into the top ten list of physicians who did accept samples.
The distribution of free drug samples in this country is big business. It's been estimated that pharmaceutical companies give away samples of medications with a retail value of about $16 billion every year. But many physicians feel the availability of samples doesn't sway their prescribing choices, and instead feel the samples allow them more flexibility to treat their patients. Lane himself thought so, until Stanford Medicine prohibited physicians to accept samples or other industry gifts in 2006. As he explains in the release:
At one time, we at Stanford really felt that samples were a very important part of our practice. It seemed a good way to help poorer patients, who maybe couldn’t afford to pay for medications out-of-pocket, and we had the perception that this was very beneficial for patients. But the important question physicians should be asking themselves now is whether any potential, and as yet unproven, benefit in patient compliance, satisfaction or adherence is really worth the increased cost to patients and the health-care system.
Clearly Lane has had a change of heart, in part based on the data in the study. Now he's hoping to get the word out to other physicians. He and Hurley conclude in the paper, "The negative consequences of free drug samples affect clinical practice on a national level, and policies should be in place to properly mitigate their inappropriate influence on prescribing patterns."