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Prescribing Bankruptcy
In Health Care, Free Stuff Is Expensive

There’s no such thing as a free drug sample, reports the LA Times. New research shows that free drug samples make U.S. health care more expensive, because doctors are much more likely to prescribe a drug if they receive free samples of it. Those samples are usually of more expensive, brand-name medications, which may also pose greater risks to patients because they lack “robust safety data.” A study of prescriptions written by dermatologists found that:

In 2010, nine of the 10 most popular acne drugs nationwide were either brand-name drugs or branded generics (which companies sell at a premium), and free samples for them are typically available. To get a sense of whether things would be different in the absence of free samples, the researchers examined the prescribing behavior of dermatologists at an academic medical center that had a policy against freebies. In this group, nine of the 10 most popular acne drugs were low-cost generics (which don’t come with free samples) […]

“Prescribing preferences are at least in part related to what is contemporaneously available as free samples,” the Stanford researchers wrote.

In 2011 alone, $6.3 billion in free samples were handed out to doctors, and judging by the rate at which brand-name drugs were prescribed, pharmaceutical companies received a return on that investment. However, more and more medical centers are refusing to accept free samples, including the Veterans Health Administration, U.S. military hospitals, and many academic medical centers. While there are more important drivers of costs in the U.S. health care system than the overprescription of expensive meds, cutting down on those prescriptions would certainly save patients money. And of all health care reforms, this one must be the easiest on doctors: Just say no to drug companies.

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