Are free samples only skin deep?

  • by: |
  • 04/17/2014

According to a new study published in JAMA Dermatology, dermatologists who receive free drug samples are more likely to give their patients prescriptions for expensive medicines.

Not surprisingly, that results in headlines such as “Free samples of prescription drugs are costly to patients, study says” (Los Angeles Times) and “Doctor’s free samples have a hidden cost” (NBC News). Sexy, but is that the real story?

The study reports that, for a single visit, the average retail cost of prescriptions for patients whose doctors received free samples from drug makers was about $465, compared with about $200 for patients whose doctors did not receive free samples.

What the study does not report (because they did not collect the data) was whether the free samples were the more therapeutically appropriate choice.

The reporting on the article (various news media) makes it sound as though generic and brand name drugs that treat the same condition are identical (and equally appropriate and efficacious) to each other. Not so. But why let important facts get in the way of a good story.

Most nauseating is the following study factoid:

In contrast, such drugs (sampled brand name drugs) only accounted for 17 percent of prescriptions written by doctors at an academic medical center that doesn't allow its doctors to accept free drug samples.

Well, duh. No samples in, no samples out. (Not to mention the fact that academic medical centers often dictate narrow formulary choices. Not surprisingly, that fact wasn’t mentioned in the study) It would also be interesting to match up patient outcomes of those derms who dispense samples vs. their ivory tower colleagues. Will any of these additional data sets be included in a follow-up study? Inquiring minds want to know.

The full study can be found here.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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