Most drug samples don't go to uninsured

Here's a study you'll find very interesting. The conventional wisdom (some would call pharmaceutical spin) is that free drug samples go to the poor and uninsured. Well, researchers at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Medical Alliance will publish a study in the February edition of the American Journal of Public Health which shows the contrary (Boston Globe).

Less than one-third of all people who received samples in a 32,000-person, nationally representative survey had low incomes, and less than one-fifth who got the free drugs were uninsured at any point in 2003.
Of course the pharmaceutical industry is calling this a flawed study - Duh! Now, don't get me wrong. The industry does some good things. There are some drug reps in my area who have gone out of their way to make sure some of my uninsured patients get the prescription meds that they require. I've also had many of my patients take part in pparx. I mean in 2004, approximately $16.4 Billion free samples were given out. However, the researchers also had these interesting findings...
Insured people with better access to medical care were more likely to see their doctors in offices, rather than hospital emergency rooms or hospital clinics. Patients who saw their doctors in offices were more likely to be given free drug samples.

"That finding suggests that the samples were a marketing tool and not a safety net because the poor and uninsured patients were not finding their way to where the samples were," [lead author, Dr. Sarah] Cutrona said.

To me, free drug samples are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, for my uninsured and economically disadvantaged patients, these samples are a kind of life line. And, in the economically troubled times of the community which I live, the young and healthy people are leaving to find work - which leave the older and sicker population. I know some offices around here who do not accept samples, and I understand their reasoning. But, that has to be tough on their patients.

On the other hand, when patients know we have samples of a particular medicine, their persistence on asking for samples can get frustrating at times - especially if I know they have insurance, a decent prescription plan, and know that they can afford to get the medication. It's not for me to judge, but it seems to me that samples for some people are a convenience rather than a necessity.

So, were/are samples a marketing tool? That's an interesting debate to have. I understand both sides of it, and I know people will leave comments probably on both sides of the issue. Our office continues to accept drug samples - along with its benefits and potential perils. What do you think? Are free drug samples a good thing or not?