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Posted 05.09.05

MU Researcher Studies Prescription Drug Samples' Effect on Social Welfare

COLUMBIA, MO -- Prescription drug samples are widely distributed by pharmaceutical firms as a means of marketing their products. Last year, these firms spent $20 billion on marketing. The value of free samples represented half of that total. The use of free samples to promote prescription drugs generates substantial negative attention that some say is based on emotion more than fact. Now, researchers, including a marketing professor from the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Business, have taken the first step in quantifying the effect of prescription drug samples on social welfare.

Murali Mantrala, MU professor of marketing, and Kissan Joseph, associate professor of marketing at the University of Kansas, have developed an economic model to examine the welfare effects of prescription drug samples as well as the effect of the level of physician experience on how drug samples are dispensed to patients.

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"We find there are both costs and benefits associated with the use of samples," Mantrala said. "Clearly, the substantial negative commentary associated with samples is driven by the fact that, in effect, the provision of samples allows makers of a brand-name drug to capture some patients that could have been equally well-treated by a generic drug, a process known as 'conquesting.'"

However, the researchers also found that prescription drug samples benefit society. Often, physicians will consult medical board recommendations when prescribing drugs to patients. In most cases, the medical board would recommend the less expensive, generic drug. While a branded drug and its generic counterpart might be used to treat the same affliction, they possess different chemical formulations. Because of this difference, a particular patient might respond better to a branded drug. Without samples, an inexperienced physician might prescribe a generic drug when a branded drug would be more appropriate, defined as a Type 2 error. Experienced physicians, on the other hand, can observe a patient's symptoms and might know that the branded drug would work better.

Additionally, an inexperienced physician who is uncertain about which drug will work better for a patient might treat the condition with a drug sample, if available. In this case, the patient would be saved the trip cost, or the cost of driving to the pharmacy to fill a trial prescription that might not work.

The researchers found that this level of physician experience might help pharmaceutical firms decide how to use samples as a marketing tool. If a pharmaceutical firm has a large supply of samples available, the firm should provide more to inexperienced physicians, who will use the samples to reduce Type 2 errors. However, if the firm has a limited number of samples, the samples should be provided to experienced physicians.

The authors' paper with these findings is currently under review at the Journal of Marketing.

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