How the Cost of Your Meds Affects Whether You Get Better

paying drugs medication pharmacyOne of the major influencers of cost at the pharmacy is whether or not a drug is a generic.  Drugs start their lives as name brand medications sold by the companies that developed them, but after years of sale the drug patent expires and generic drug makers move in. While generics are supposed to be the same as their name brand counterparts, some people will swear by the name brand over the generic. There are many reasons a name brand might appear to work better than the generic, but a new study this week has revealed that the perceived cost of a drug may play a key role.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers gathered a group of 12 people with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a brain disease that leads to movement problems. For reasons not well understood, a certain type of nerve cell in the brain important in controlling movements starts to die. This makes it difficult for those who have Parkinson’s to move and control their movement the way a person without the disease would.

The team told these patients they had an experimental drug they wanted to test that would help with their symptoms. They split them into two groups. The first half were told the injection cost $100, while the second half were told the injection would cost $1,500. What none of the participants knew was that the injection was saline, essentially harmless salt water, rather than a real drug. After four hours, they switched the groups and injected the other arm. Participants who had received the cheap “drug” in their left arm now got the expensive one in their right arm and vice versa.

What was the effect of the fake drug?

The researchers performed a variety of tests after each injection to see how the participants felt and how well they performed on a number of tests that looked at their movement. Both treatments improved movement from their usual functioning in spite of not being real drugs. This confirmed what is called the placebo effect, where the act of receiving a treatment and the expectation that it will help is enough to improve a person’s condition even if the treatment itself doesn’t do anything.

How did cost factor in?

But the team also found that the more expensive version worked significantly better. Those on the pricey “drug” moved 28% better than those on the cheap one and the effect held when individuals switched arms. When judged by testers who didn’t know the nature of the study, those with the more expensive drug were more often judged as having “very good” function and “marked improvement” in their abilities. When the real intent of the study was revealed to the study participants, most said they didn’t consciously expect more from the expensive drug and were surprised to know that price had made such a big difference in their response.

What does this study mean for you?

The researchers say this study adds nuance to our understanding of the placebo effect, which can be a powerful tool to help improve a person’s response to the drugs they take. It might be that knowing the price of your drugs could help you get more out of them, especially if one or two are an expensive name brand. And while this study hid the true nature of the “drug” that was given, using the placebo effect doesn’t have to be deceptive. Past research has shown that improvement can occur even when individuals know they’re getting a placebo.