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Free Drug Samples for Doctors Raise Costs for Patients

Update Date: Apr 17, 2014 11:46 AM EDT

Even though free things are nice to get, they may not always be good. According to a new study, free drug samples could increase medication costs for patients. The researchers found that that dermatologists who received these free items tended to write more costly prescriptions for their patients.

"Prescribing preferences are at least in part related to what is contemporaneously available as free samples," the Stanford researchers wrote according to the Los Angeles Times.

For this study, the researchers examined data on prescriptions that were written for patients dealing with adult acne. The prescriptions were written by U.S. dermatologists in 2010 and the data came from the National Disease and Therapeutic Index. The researchers compared the different types of medications that were prescribed by doctors who received free drug samples and doctors who did not.

The researchers round that in 2010, 18 percent of all the prescriptions written by dermatologists came with a free sample. In 2001, that rate was just 12 percent. The team discovered that the average retail cost for prescribed medications written by dermatologists that received free drug samples was $465. The costs fell drastically to $200 if the patient saw a doctor who had not received any free drug samples.

Roughly 79 percent of the prescriptions written that year were for brand name drugs or branded generics, which are drugs that are made with different dosages or new formulations. Branded generics are often sold under a new name. When the researchers examined how often dermatologists from academic medical centers who are not allowed to accept free samples prescribed these same drugs, the rate fell to 17 percent.

"Physicians may not be aware of the cost difference between brand-name and generic drugs, and patients may not realize that, by accepting samples, they could be unintentionally channeled into subsequently receiving a prescription for a more expensive medication," study senior author Dr. Alfred Lane, emeritus professor of dermatology and of pediatrics at Stanford University, reported in Philly.

The study was published in JAMA Dermatology.

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