NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 1, 2007

Everyone loves freebies, and patients are no exception.  So drug company sales representatives try to keep sample cabinets in medical offices well stocked with the latest medications, for doctors to dispense as the need arises.

Patients like going home with free samples because it saves them a trip to the drugstore and a co-pay, and doctors are happy to oblige, because samples help patients get started on treatment right away.  But now some leading academic medical centers are restricting the use of samples, and a smattering of physician practices are shutting down the sample cabinet:

  • These critics say doctors should be choosing the most appropriate medication for a patient based on the best scientific evidence available -- not just grabbing something from the office stash that happens to fit the bill.
  • The crackdown on free samples comes amid growing concern about the close ties between physicians and drug companies.
  • Critics like Dr. Rothman say physicians don't realize the extent to which their medical judgment is influenced by their acceptance of the samples.
  • They point to studies like a 2002 paper in the journal Annals of Family Medicine finding that the number of doctors who treated high blood pressure with the "first line" drugs recommended by national guidelines was low, but increased sharply when free samples were removed.

But there's an upside to the samples:

  • Using samples, a doctor can see if a patient can tolerate a new medication before the patient goes out and buys a 30-day supply.
  • Physicians who treat poor people like to have samples on hand for them, and for uninsured patients.
  • And many physicians say they like using samples because the sales representatives are an important source of medical education, helping to keep the doctors up to date on the latest therapies.

Source: Roni Caryn Rabin, "Free Drug Samples? Bad Idea, Some Say," New York Times, May 1, 2007.

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