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Free e-samples of prescription drugs offer little value to consumers

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

According to a new study, free prescription drug samples found on the internet offer little value to consumers. Though the urge to try free or discounted e-samples offered by pharmaceutical companies may be compelling, you’ll pay a higher cost to continue the drug. In most cases a less expensive generic equivalent is not available, and the cost of continuing the high.

The findings suggest that free e-samples of prescription drugs do not serve the public. The findings are published in the Archives of Internal Medicine from a study led by Dr. William G. Weppner of the University of Washington (UW) Department of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise, Idaho.

The findings also showed that e-samples and discounted prescription drugs are emphasized rather than information about side effects and drug effectiveness. Information about the prescription tends to be generalized, when provided directly to consumers over the internet. The US and New Zealand are the only countries that allow drug marketing directly to consumers.

Relative to health care reform, Dr. Weppner says, "Many of these discounts are aimed at co-pays, which could increase costs to consumers via health insurance premiums." More than half of the most popularly prescribed drugs offer discounts directly to consumers via the Internet, noted in the study.

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Prescription drugs offered for free or at a discount to consumers on the Internet only amount to a five percent savings yearly for consumers, are expensive to continue, have no generic equivalent, and are often still under patent protection.

In order to get free e-samples of prescription drugs, consumers are required to submit e-mail address, medical information, and postal address.

The authors say, "Collection of such information may compromise patient privacy if made accessible to unauthorized users. An interesting feature of this marketing strategy is its potential role as a means in which Web users are coerced to provide consumer information that unwittingly drives the content of the Web sites they view. Such a new version of targeted direct-to-consumer advertising could automatically gather information from drug-offer forms, patient searches, previously visited Web sites or even text from e-mail. The strategy would then provide advertising links to Web pages offering discounted or free coupons for drugs."

The true value of free e-samples is minimal according to the authors, though the marketing strategy is common.

The FDA is evaluating implementation of new guidelines for direct consumer marketing of prescription medications. If new practices are mandated, consumers would be better informed about the benefits, effect, and side effects of prescription medications, and free e-samples and drug discounts that offer no significant benefit to consumers would become a thing of the past.

Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(21):2024-2030