In addition, getting medical care in an office rather than a clinic and taking more medications also increased the chances of receiving free drug samples.
Cutrona doesn't think that doctors deliberately ignore uninsured and poor patients when it comes to handing out samples, it's just that doctors in private practice are less likely to see the poor and uninsured.
Although drug companies tout drug sampling as a way to help needy patients, Cutrona disagrees. "These findings suggest that free samples serve as a marketing tool and not as a safety net," she said. "We need to examine whether free samples belong in our offices."
One expert contended that the study reveals the true marketing purposes of drug samples.
"It seems both the pharmaceutical industry and doctors share a Pollyanna view of free drug samples as a way of reducing costs for indigent patients," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "The reality, according to the data reported in this study, is quite different. The drugs are more likely to serve marketing than a 'safety net' function."
To serve as a real safety net, the use of free drug samples must be woven into the appropriate health care settings and situations, Katz said. "Otherwise, we have at best somewhat deceptive marketing, at worst, hypocrisy."
Reacting to the study, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an industry trade group, took issue with the findings.
"Instead of second-guessing motives, Harvard researchers would better serve patients by examining health outcomes," PhRMA Senior Vice President Ken Johnson said in a prepared statement. "Clearly, free samples often lead to improved quality of life for millions of Americans, regardless of their income."
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