The American Journal of Public Health released a study last week examining who is more likely to receive free prescription drug samples based on variables such as ethnicity and income. Guess who is getting the samples? If you thought the poor and uninsured, you guessed wrong.
"The most compelling argument that most doctors give in support of giving free samples is that samples allow them to give free medication to their neediest patients, so we set out to ask whether free samples go primarily to poor and uninsured patients," said one of the report's authors, Sarah L. Cutrona, internal medicine hospitalist at Cambridge Health Alliance.
According to the study, free sample receipt was consistently higher among those with better access to medical care. Non-Hispanic, English-speaking, and white patients were all more likely to receive free samples than were members of ethnic, linguistic, or racial minorities. The authors found that while free sample use is widespread, with 12 percent of Americans receiving at least one free sample in 2003, few samples went to needy patients, and insured Americans with higher incomes were more likely to report receiving drug samples.
"When you think about the mechanisms at play, it's actually not surprising, but it's a little disappointing, nevertheless," Cutrona told Pharm Exec on Tuesday. "I think that free samples are something that should be spoken about in the medical community more than they are. Frequently, when conversations are held between pharma and doctors, free samples fly under the radar—and they shouldn't. They should be on the table, being discussed like everything else."
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), however, disagrees with the study, stating that the information is outdated and that it ignored data released since the inception of Partnership for Prescription Assistance, a pharma-sponsored program designed to get drugs into the hands of the needy.
"Instead of second-guessing motives, Harvard researchers would better serve patients by examining health outcomes," PhRMA Senior Vice President Ken Johnson stated in a release. "Clearly, free samples often lead to improved quality of life for millions of Americans, regardless of their income."
Last year, Johnson told the New York Times that many uninsured and low-income patients benefit from the free samples and that they serve as a safety net. According to Cutrona, that statement helped instigate the study.
"I'm quite honored that they took the time to respond and engage in a dialogue, so it is certainly a compliment that the study we wrote would catch the attention of PhRMA," Cutrona said. "Because we are academic researchers, we were very careful to not overstep the bounds of anything that we actually concluded. I think we were very careful to only make statements when we were backed up by our findings."