Don’t demonize drug samples. They are crucial to our healthcare
Medical researchers recently confirmed a link between chronic fatigue syndrome and a recently discovered retrovirus. Armed with this knowledge, some doctors are now prescribing HIV drugs to their sickest patients.
This story highlights how difficult it is for physicians to find the right medicines for their patients. The interaction between a particular drug and the human body is incredibly complex. People react to the exact same treatment in very different ways.
As a result, doctors often rely on samples that the pharmaceutical companies give them so they can determine more quickly if a particular drug is right for that patient. That is good and timely medicine. And every drug the companies give away has gone through years of testing with the Food and Drug Administration to make sure it is safe.
Yet under the new healthcare overhaul law, pharmaceutical firms are required to provide Congress with detailed reports on all of the free drug samples they provide to physicians. Some lawmakers see this requirement as a step toward an outright ban on free samples, making it more difficult for doctors to customize drug treatments for their patients.
But samples serve a crucial clinical role. They allow doctors to learn more about the drug to see how well it works. Also, patients are more likely to start treatment if they walk out the door of their doctor’s office with the medicine they need.
Across the country doctors have testified that samples help them improve patient care. Anand Mehendal, a neurologist in Kerrville, Texas, recently said that he uses samples “to see whether the patient is going to tolerate the drug.” Similarly, the American Medical Association has stated that “samples of prescription drug products represent valuable benefits to the patients.”
Severely restricting pharmaceutical samples would dramatically increase the cost of care. In fact, these samples actually save our health system money in the long run. Doctors use them as a way to test treatments before asking patients (and/or their insurers) to pay for a full supply.
Drugs samples are also a valuable supplement to the drug industry’s efforts to give low-income patients access to needed medications. Most pharmaceutical companies run charity programs that provide drugs at little or no cost. Doctors often help people who are struggling financially by giving them samples. In 2007 alone, Pfizer, Merck, Eli Lilly, Baxter, and Abbott Labs gave out 240 million drug samples valued at just about $3 billion.
Drug samples are not only valuable, but also are valued by both the patient and the doctor. A 2006 poll published in the Journal of Medical Ethics found that 90 percent of physicians and pharmacists consider the practice ethical. And a 1995 survey in the Journal of the American Board of Family Practice found that 90 percent of patients believe it’s okay for their doctor to accept samples from drug makers.
So if drug samples are popular with physicians and patients, why are lawmakers demonizing them in this new health law?
Critics charge that samples are nothing more than a marketing gimmick to get patients to purchase more drugs. They also say the reporting requirement will provide transparency and prevent drug makers from unduly influencing doctors.
But doctors have sworn an oath to do what’s best for their patients. It’s ridiculous to think that doctors’ ethical principles could be bought off for a few free drug samples.
Lawmakers shouldn’t demonize this practice.