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Free drug samples make you spend more!

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Free drug samplesPatients who receive free drug samples from their doctors end up having significantly higher out-of-pocket costs for their prescription drugs than people who don’t receive free samples, a new study finds.

In fact, patients who received free samples spent about $166 in out-of-pocket costs on prescription drugs in the six months before receiving the samples, $244 for the six months in which they received samples, and $212 for the six months following receipt of the free drugs, the study found.

But patients who didn’t get free samples spent about $178 on prescription drugs over six months.

“This is a curious finding because one would think, intuitively, that if you receive a free sample, one’s out-of-pocket prescription cost would be lower, not higher,” said lead researcher Dr. G. Caleb Alexander, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

There are several possible explanations for the finding, Alexander said. One is that patients who receive free samples may be sicker than patients who don’t get samples.

“The second possibility is that patients who receive free samples may go on to receive and fill prescriptions for the very same medicine that were initially begun as free samples,” Alexander said. “We know that drugs that are available as free samples are those that are being widely marketed and promoted and these drugs are more expensive than their older, less promoted counterparts.”

The study findings are published in the March 24 issue of the journal Medical Care.

For the study, Alexander’s team collected data on 5,709 patients who had participated in the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. The survey was done by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the patients were followed for up to two years.

Seventy-six percent of the patients had private health insurance. During the study period, 14 percent of them were given at least one drug sample. A total of 2,343 samples were distributed during the period, the researchers found.

Patients who received free samples were more likely to be younger and have private insurance, while patients with Medicaid were less likely to receive samples, the researchers noted.

The findings follow earlier research, reported in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health, in which Harvard University researchers showed that more than 80 percent of free drug samples were given to wealthy and insured patients, not to uninsured and poorer patients.

Alexander said there are many ways doctors and patients can work together to reduce drug costs, but giving away free samples may not be the best one.

“Doctors and patients both should be encouraged to consider alternative ways to reduce patients’ out-of-pocket costs,” he said. “There are many other strategies doctors can use, such as prescribing a three-month rather than a one-month supply, such as using greater numbers of generic medicines, and discontinuing non-essential medicines.”

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University School of Medicine’s Prevention Research Center, said free samples aren’t designed to help lower drug costs, but rather to sell newer and more expensive drugs.

“Almost every clinician’s office is stocked with drug samples,” he said. “For patients and providers alike, these free drugs can take on the aura of Halloween goodies. Passing them out feels like giving a gift.”

But, Katz added, “free samples are by no means a long-term solution to high prescription drug costs. Rather, they are at least, in part, a marketing device, a chance to sample the wares.”

The pharmaceutical industry had this to say: “Free pharmaceutical samples are beneficial to patients of all income levels. Patients are able to try out a new therapy - gaining valuable first-hand experience of its benefits and side effects - without making a co-payment,” said Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) senior vice president Ken Johnson.

“What’s more, contrary to statements made by critics, America’s physicians prescribe medicines based on a wide range of factors, not simply receipt of free prescription drug samples,” Johnson added in a prepared statement.

Free Drug Samples? Bad Idea, Some Say

Everyone loves freebies, and patients are no exception. So drug company sales representatives try to keep sample cabinets in medical offices well stocked with the latest medications, for doctors to dispense as the need arises.

Patients like going home with free samples because it saves them a trip to the drugstore and a co-pay, and doctors are happy to oblige, because samples help patients get started on treatment right away.

But now some leading academic medical centers are restricting the use of samples, and a smattering of physician practices are shutting down the sample cabinet. These critics say doctors should be choosing the most appropriate medication for a patient based on the best scientific evidence available — not just grabbing something from the office stash that happens to fit the bill.

“The doctor will say, ‘Here, start on this, and let’s see how it works,’ ” said David J. Rothman, president of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession, a research group at Columbia. “The question to the doctor is: If you didn’t have it in your drawer, would that have been your drug of choice?”

The crackdown on free samples comes amid growing concern about the close ties between physicians and drug companies. Critics like Dr. Rothman say physicians don’t realize the extent to which their medical judgment is influenced by their acceptance of the samples. They point to studies like a 2002 paper in the journal Annals of Family Medicine finding that the number of doctors who treated high blood pressure with the “first line” drugs recommended by national guidelines was low, but increased sharply when free samples were removed.

So far, the University of Michigan Health System has banned free samples altogether, and the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University medical schools have prohibited staff members from accepting them (though samples can be given to Stanford’s pharmacy for use in free clinics).

Some medical groups and solo practitioners have also changed their policies. Dr. Jonathan Mohrer, an internist in Forest Hills, Queens, said he closed his sample cabinet in part because his office was overrun with sales representatives. “It was totally spinning out of control,” Dr. Mohrer said. “They were meeting each other and schmoozing in the waiting room — it was like a party.”

His office staff had to spend time arranging the cabinet, throwing out expired medications and rummaging around for the right drug. Patients were kept waiting while sales representatives were whisked in.

But there’s an upside to the samples. Using samples, a doctor can see if a patient can tolerate a new medication before the patient goes out and buys a 30-day supply. Physicians who treat poor people like to have samples on hand for them, and for uninsured patients.

Samples also provide patients with the convenience of one-stop shopping, said Dr. Hema A. Sundaram, a dermatologist in suburban Washington. “Usually a patient has waited some time to see a doctor and rearranged their whole working schedule, and then it may be another four or five days before they can fill a prescription,” she said. “They’re often busy, working people, with family responsibilities. I feel there shouldn’t be any further delay.” (Dr. Sundaram acknowledges that she is paid for speaking on behalf of drug companies.)

And many physicians say they like using samples because the sales representatives are an important source of medical education, helping to keep the doctors up to date on the latest therapies.

“Doctors who are shutting the door to sales reps are cutting themselves off from a lot of valuable information,” said Scott Lassman, senior assistant general counsel for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade association. “Sales reps can explain when it’s right to use a drug, when it’s not right to use the drug, which patients might benefit and which patients it might not work for.”

Some doctors are skeptical. “The sales reps are nice people, and they try to do a really good job,” said Dr. Judith Chamberlain, medical director of the Bowdoin Medical Group, a practice near Portland, Me., that banned samples this year. “But their job is to get you to use their product.”

A 1995 study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that 11 percent of the statements drug company representatives made during presentations were inaccurate, and all of the inaccuracies were skewed in favor of their products.

The drugs promoted through free samples tend to be the newer medications that doctors are less familiar with, experts say. Some critics of samples say they prefer using older drugs anyway, because their side effects are better known. Critics also point out that helping poor and uninsured patients is not the intent of the sample distribution, and they add that developments like Medicare’s prescription-drug coverage, the proliferation of generic drugs and improvements in drug company patient-assistance programs have eased access to medication.

As for the bottom line, it’s not at all clear that samples save patients money. Critics say they may actually drive up the cost of health care in the long run, because the drugs being promoted are the most expensive brand-name medications. Since many conditions require lifelong treatment, the patient would have to buy the medicine sooner or later.

“You’re going to be paying more, because you’re taking the new, advanced drug,” Dr. Rothman said. “And you may have done just fine on the old-fashioned generic.”

Do free drug samples influence residents’ prescribing decisions?

When a pharmaceutical company puts drug samples into the hands of residents as a form of marketing, how does it influence their prescribing behavior? To what extent are treatment decisions based on which samples are available and further, what are the implications for patient care as well as resident education? While this is a frequently debated issue, there has been little objective data describing how drug samples affect resident physicians. In a study published in the August issue of The American Journal of Medicine, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Abbott Northwestern Hospital conducted a randomized study of 29 internal medicine residents over a 6-month period in an inner-city primary care clinic. Highly advertised drugs were matched with drugs commonly used for the same indication that were less expensive, available over-the-counter, or available in generic formulation. By random selection, half of the residents agreed not to use available free drug samples. The authors observed 390 decisions to initiate drug therapy in five drug class pairs.

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