Use of prescription drug samples and patient assistance programs, and the role of doctor-patient communication

J Gen Intern Med. 2011 Dec;26(12):1458-64. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1801-y. Epub 2011 Jul 13.


Background: Cost-related underuse of medications is common among older adults, who seldom discuss medication costs with their physicians. Some older adults may use free drug samples or industry-sponsored patient assistance programs (PAP) in hopes of lowering out-of-pocket costs, although the long-term effect of these programs on drug spending is unclear.

Objective: To examine older adults' use of industry-sponsored strategies to reduce out-of-pocket drug costs and the association between doctor-patient communication and use of these programs.

Design: Cross-sectional analysis of a 2006 nationally representative survey of Medicare beneficiaries.

Participants: 14,322 community-dwelling Medicare beneficiaries age ≥65.

Main measures: We conducted bivariate and multivariate analyses of the association between receipt of free samples and participation in PAPs with sociodemographic characteristics, health status, access to care, drug coverage, medication cost burden, and doctor-patient communication.

Key results: 51.4% of seniors reported receiving at least one free sample over the last 12 months and 29.2% reported receiving free samples more than once. In contrast, only 1.3% of seniors reported participating in an industry-sponsored PAP. Higher income respondents were more likely to report free sample receipt than low-income respondents (50.8% vs. 43.8%, p < 0.001) and less likely to report participating in a PAP (0.42% vs. 2.2%, p < 0.001). In multivariate analyses, those who reported talking to their doctor about the cost of their medications had more than twice the odds of receiving samples as those who did not (OR 2.17, 95% CI 1.95-2.42).

Conclusions: In 2006, over half of seniors in Medicare received free samples, but only 1.3% reported receiving any medications from a patient assistance program. Doctor-patient communication is strongly associated with use of these programs, which has important implications for clinical care regardless of whether these programs are viewed as drivers of prescription costs or a remedy for them.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Communication*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Assistance / economics*
  • Medicare / economics*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Prescription Drugs / economics*
  • Prescription Drugs / therapeutic use*
  • Prescription Fees
  • United States


  • Prescription Drugs