Free drug samples may not be as cost-saving as they may appear. A new study suggests that doctors who give patients free drug samples are also less likely to prescribe lower-cost generic drugs and more likely to opt for pricier brand-name drugs that could cost patients more overall.
Giving out free drug samples has already been banned in certain health care settings, including many academic medical centers, the Veterans Health Administration and the U.S. military, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, many doctors continue to give free samples to their patients. Dermatologists appear to be particularly likely to give out free samples. In the study, researchers found that 18% of dermatologists’ prescriptions came with a free sample in 2010, up from 12% in 2001. Other types of physicians gave out far fewer free samples – 4% in 2010, down from 7% in 2001.
The researchers also found that brand-name medications and branded generic drugs, which are sold at a higher price and more likely to come with free samples, made up 79% of the prescriptions written for acne and rosacea by physicians working in private practices. In contrast, only 17% of prescriptions written at an academic medical center that prohibited free samples were the more expensive branded drugs. The researchers concluded that physician’s prescribing practices were at least partially dictated by what drugs were available as free samples.
Patients seen for complaints of adult acne in private practices that were more tolerant of free samples came away with about $465 worth of medications, on average, while those treated in academic medical centers that discouraged free samples came away with prescriptions that cost about $200. Drug companies provided $6.3 billion worth of free drug samples to doctors in 2011 according to Medical American News.