Giving out free samples of branded drugs: Do the benefits trump the negatives?

AstraZeneca is to increase its stockpiles of drugs by about a fifth in preparation for a no-deal Brexit after European regulator told companies to be ready for a possible hard Brexit in April 2019.

An interesting poll has recently been carried out online to determine if the doctors who were getting free samples of branded medicines from pharmaceutical sales representatives were inclined to give preference to these very drugs over other similar-acting medications later on.

The results of the poll revealed that 51% of the participants did not think that receiving free samples of brand-name drugs made them more likely to prescribe those to their patients in the future. Another 35% admitted that such a practice could stimulate them to promote one brand over the other, provided the two met the same quality and safety standards. Finally, the remaining 14% of the respondents said they were never approached by pharma sales reps offering free drug samples.

While such an anonymous, free-for-all-to-participate poll is meant to entertain rather than provide any more or less consistent results, it does touch upon an important question that has been asked more and more often in recent years: “What is the real cost of free drug samples?”

The Benefits of Free Sampling

Instant treatment onset

Patients who receive free samples of branded drugs can start their course of treatment right away without leaving the doctor’s office to fill the prescription in their local pharmacy. Given that up to 30% of all prescriptions never get filled, and over 50% of all vital and life-saving medications are not taken as required, many believe that this can help improve the overall medication regimen adherence among patients and encourage them to continue with their treatment after they walk out of the clinic.

Availability of options to choose from

Some time into their treatment, patients may feel that the prescribed medication is not effective or has a wide range of side effects that make taking it dangerous. In these cases, the physician would normally switch his patient to another drug, and then another one until they finally find the medicine that works best. Not all insurance companies are willing to cover these expenses, and often patients have to stick to an ineffective treatment because that is what they can afford.

Free samples can simplify the process of therapy adjustments and allow patients to try a few brand-name drugs before they fill the prescription in the pharmacy.

Free samples of drugs introduce practicing doctors to the newest treatment options

Many physicians find it difficult to keep up with the latest medical advances. Not everyone can make time in their busy schedule to attend another seminar or participate in the conference to learn about what is going on in the field of drug research and development. Having a sales rep to come to tell you about a breakthrough pharmaceutical discovery and hand out free samples to test is one way to stay up to speed and ensure your patients can receive the best possible help.

Free samples of branded drugs can relieve the financial burden on the patient

For the majority of patients who do not have continuous health insurance and, therefore, cannot pay for the drugs themselves, getting free samples of branded medications is possibly the only way to receive any treatment at all, health care providers say. Their opponents argue that this approach is fundamentally wrong and does more harm than good since the patient eventually has to spend much more money to continue the costly treatment. However, by balancing things off, a solution can be reached. Insurance companies charge lower percentage in deductibles and co-pays when customers choose in favor of cheaper generic medications. They are identical to brand pills and can too be sampled, visit to find out about current offers on free pills. The point is, one gets to try out the same pills that will eventually fit into their budget, cheaper generics that do not put a whole in a budget once you’ve made sure that their quality suits you fine.

The Downsides of Free Sampling

Some physicians tend to give priority to particular drugs over their valid counterparts

Many people are confident: by giving out free samples of expensive branded medicines, pharmaceutical companies seek to enhance their profits at the expense of doctors’ violating their patients’ trust. There is no ambiguity about this issue: most doctors tend to write out prescriptions for the drugs they have previously given to their patients as free samples. However, it is not necessarily the doctor’s way of proving his loyalty to the pharma company that provides the samples; often they do it because the drugs are highly effective and well-tolerated by the patient.

Free samples are branded medications, which are always more expensive than generic versions

The sampled medications that drug reps offer to doctors are brand-name products that can cost many times more than their generic copies. For example, take Viagra, the most popular erectile dysfunction drug in the world. The retail price of the original 100mg pill manufactured by Pfizer is $61.54, whereas the same 100 milligrams of Generic Viagra will only cost patients something around $3 per one pill. The same is true for other ED meds like generic Levitra or generic Cialis.

Unfortunately, many patients are unaware that many brand-name drugs have generics available, and doctors often overlook cheaper generic versions of drugs in favor of their more costly analogs just to be on the safe side.

The supply is often limited and can’t cover patients’ continuous needs for expensive meds

Many physicians are concerned that free drug samples often tempt them to start their patients on medication regimens, which they will not be able to continue to offer for free in the future. This often leads to life-threatening interruptions in the therapy when patients cannot afford to pay for the full course of treatment with branded meds out of their pockets.

Expenditures on free drug samples may lead to higher retail prices for these drugs

Big Pharma spends around $30 billion per year to persuade consumers to buy their drugs, a large portion of that budget being free drug samples given to doctors. Pharma giants eventually make up for the expenditures associated with free drug sampling through increased retail prices for these drugs and higher sales volumes. So, oftentimes, it is the low-income uninsured patient who ends up losing.

Free samples do not always reach patients they are meant for

One of the reasons why doctors agree to accept free samples from pharmaceutical reps is to help improve the overall quality of patient care and provide targeted aid to patients who are struggling financially and cannot otherwise afford vital brand-name medications. However, the available data suggest that it is not always those most in need who get the samples. A few studies show that many doctors would often give free samples to high-income patients instead of the uninsured, underprivileged audience they are intended for.

Moreover, it is not unheard of for doctors to keep the free samples to themselves and their family members or even sell those on to someone else, which is not only unethical but also downright criminal.

The Takeaways

Doctors who give away free drug samples to their patients mean well and simply seek to offer the best and most innovative treatment options to those who cannot afford to pay for the expensive Rx medicines out of pocket. However, most experts agree that this practice is just a band aid approach that cannot fix the bigger problem or secure any long-term health benefits for the patient.

The opponents of the idea of distributing free samples among doctors also say this practice is dangerous since it might corrupt the physician’s decision-making and tempt him to prescribe more expensive brand-name products over cheaper generic drugs.

Forbidding doctors to accept free samples from drug reps is not a viable option. It is unlikely to put a stop to drug advertising, but will surely deprive many poor patients of what might be their only chance of getting quality medical advice and treatment. The solution is yet to be found, apparently.