Everybody likes something free, and free prescription drug samples are no exception. Patients love to receive them, and doctors feel good about handing them out. The practice of providing free drug samples is based on the tacit assumption that “sampling” does much more good than harm. In two separate news releases within the past year by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the trade organization that represents the country’s largest and leading drug companies, a senior vice president claimed that free samples improve patient care, foster appropriate medication use, and help millions of financially struggling patients. He averred further that samples benefit physicians by exposing them to new treatment options. In this essay, we question the assumption that good trumps harm when prescription drugs are provided free to practicing doctors. We argue that “sampling” is not effective in improving drug access for the indigent, does not promote rational drug use, and raises the cost of care.
The authors admit this is harder than it would first appear:
It is unrealistic to expect pharmaceutical companies to give up one of their most potent marketing techniques voluntarily. Thus, if we are convinced that using free samples is counterproductive in terms of the quality and cost of care, only the medical profession can seek a halt to the practice. The voucher approach is an improvement over our current method of sample distribution, but we favor having our institutions eliminate the use of samples. We call on medical societies, including the American Medical Association, to educate their practitioner members about alternatives to free samples and to re-examine their guidelines on acceptance of samples.
The tradition of physicians dispensing samples has many serious disadvantages and is as anachronistic as bloodletting and high colonic irrigations. As the profession begins to slowly extract itself from the influential grip of industry, it must also deal with the undue influence of free samples.
Maybe some of that $2 trillion in ‘voluntary’ health care savings could go towards buying medicine for people.