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Drug Samples Handed Out by Doctors Pose Risk to Patient Health

Wednesday, June 03, 2009 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: drug samples, health news, Natural News

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(NaturalNews) Countless U.S. doctors regularly give away free drug samples provided by the pharmaceutical industry to their patients. It's a practice that may simply seem, at first glance, like an altruistic way to help sick people save money. However, two academics have written a report just published in PLoS Medicinethat lambasts this tradition as not only costly in the long run but downright dangerous to the health of patients.

Researcher Susan Chimonas of the Center on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, and Jerome Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a distinguished professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, call handing out free drug samples as "anachronistic as bloodletting..." They also say the practice is "not effective in improving drug access for the indigent, does not promote rational drug use, and raises the cost of care."

That's just the opposite of the hype Big Pharma has been putting out for years. The pharmaceutical giants have longed claimed that providing free drug starter packs is a type of public service that allows drug companies to help patients who are struggling financially. But Dr. Chimonas and Dr. Kassirer point to research that documents the fact that low-income, uninsured patients actually are less likely to receive free samples of medications than patients who have great insurance coverage. What's more, the researchers point out in their report that drug samples frequently "are appropriated by physicians for personal or family use."

In addition, the PLoS Medicine article notes that one study concluded nearly half of pharmaceutical sales representatives surveyed admitted to taking drug samples themselves and/or handing them out for their friends and relatives to use. According to Dr. Chimonas and Dr. Kassirer, these findings show that prescription drug samples often reach people they weren't intended for -- and the obvious result is that these medications are frequently misused and abused.

Free drug samples don't help patients save money

There's even more bad news in the PLoS Medicine report about drug freebies. Studies show drug samples are actually a bust at lowering patient costs. The reason? Dr. Chimonas and Dr. Kassirer point out that medication samples raise the cost of health care because Big Pharma companies jack up drug prices even higher to recoup the marketing costs of their free drug handouts. "Indeed, evidence shows that patients who received free samples had higher out-of-pocket costs than their counterparts who were not given free samples," the authors said in a statement to the media.

If the financial sham of "free" medicine helping the needy wasn't enough, it turns out that giving out samples of drugs is associated with risky, poor quality health care. In their article, Dr. Chimonas and Dr. Kassirer bring up this all-too-frequent scenario: low-income patients are given a ''starter pack'' of drugs, such as antibiotics, and a prescription they are supposed to fill for the remaining period of treatment. However, the patients may very likely have no way to pay for the prescription so they can't continue their treatment.

Another potentially health-harming risk is that detailed patient education regarding the use of the free drugs, including potential side effects, rarely occurs. And even if some instructions are given to the patient, there's usually no information about potential interactions with other drugs, much less instructions on how the drug should be taken (for example, on an empty stomach or with a meal). There's also no pharmacist involved to make sure expiration dates on the free drugs haven't been overlooked or ignored.

"It is difficult to escape the conclusion," Dr. Chimonas and Dr. Kassirer wrote, "that the prime motivation behind the provision of free samples is marketing." After all, they say, the freebies play a major role in steering physicians' prescribing habits and are one of the most effective ways for Big Pharma sales representatives to get their foot in the door to pitch their companies' drugs and other products to doctors and their staffs.

Bottom line: Dr. Chimonas and Dr. Kassirer are sounding the warning that the medical profession should stop accepting samples from the pharmaceutical industry and should immediately stop handing out free drugs to patients.

Chimonas S, Kassirer JP (2009) No More Free Drug Samples? PLoS Med 6(5): e1000074. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000074

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