People and professionals have long wondered whether there was a downside to giving away free samples of prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical companies keep doctors’ offices well-stocked on such free samples, so they obviously suspected it was a way to introduce patients to their brand and get them to come back for more. As paying customers.
Now a new study puts the matter to rest and explains why that “free” sample actually results in higher costs — for everyone.
Brand-name prescription medications carry a premium, just as in the rest of the world. You pay more for the brand-name. Drug companies say that money helps cover their R&D costs for all of the failed medications that never come to market. But it also helps cover their huge marketing budgets, which they talk far less about.
Generic prescriptions, on the other hand, save everyone money. Typically, they contain the same active ingredients as the brand-name drug, and have to be show to be “bio-equivalent” to the brand-name drug before they can come on the market. They may cost anywhere from 1/10th to 1/100th the price of the brand-name drug — a bargain in anyone’s book.
Free samples of brand-name drugs are given to doctors’ offices by the pharmaceutical company who makes the drug. Their given in the hopes that the free samples will influence the prescribing behavior of the doctor: “Here, let me give you a free sample of this drug. Oh, and we might as well write the script for the same drug, so you don’t have to deal with any new side effects if I prescribed a different drug instead.”
And that’s the problem — pharmaceutical companies are buying doctor influence through this simple act of giving them the freebies.
The LA Times’ Karen Kaplan has the story:
[… R]esearchers found that dermatologists were still enamored with free samples. In 2010, 18% of all prescriptions they wrote came with a free sample, up from 12% in 2001. […]
The list of top five acne drugs changed considerably between 2001 and 2010, according to the study. But the favorites were usually closely aligned with the drugs that doctors had available for free in their offices.
In 2010, nine of the 10 most popular acne drugs nationwide were either brand-name drugs or branded generics (which companies sell at a premium), and free samples for them are typically available.
Now, guess what happens in doctors’ offices where free samples are not allowed?
In this group, nine of the 10 most popular acne drugs were low-cost generics (which don’t come with free samples).
So maybe that initial trial run of taking the free sample drug saves a patient money. After all, they didn’t have to pay for that first week’s or month’s supply of the more expensive brand-name drug.
It doesn’t seem that the free samples wound up saving patients much money. Those who were seen in private practices walked away with prescriptions for $465 worth of medications, on average, while the patients treated at the academic medical center got prescriptions that cost about $200 to fill. “In other words, the national mean retail cost of the prescriptions received at an office visit for acne is conservatively two times higher compared with the [academic medical center], where samples were unavailable,” the researchers concluded.
But, as the researchers noted, we already knew all of this. Previous research conducted on “free” samples has shown much the same pattern of behavior: docs prescribe more of the free sample drug than generics, when free samples are available in their office. And patients pay more out-of-pocket costs when prescribed a brand-name drug.
Many healthcare systems haven’t taken note of this connection, and banned free samples from their offices. This includes Kaiser Permanente, the VA, and the U.S. military.
So the next time you’re in your doctor’s office and they offer you a free sample, do something different — consider turning it down and ask if a generic is available instead. If a generic is available, you’ll end up paying less for a drug with the same or similar benefits.
Keep in mind, however, that generics are not available for all drugs, and there may, in fact, be legitimate professional reasons a doctor wants to prescribe a specific brand-name drug over a generic. This is an opportunity to have a conversation about it, instead of simply accepting the doctor’s first decision as the final one.
Read the full article: Free samples of prescription drugs are costly to patients, study says