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Money Makes the World of Big Pharma Go Round

“Money makes the world go round” –whether you first heard the idiom in the 1960’s musical “Cabaret” or as the title of an R&B song by R. Kelly, the popular phrase is highly relevant to the pharmaceutical industry (pharma).   According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global pharmaceuticals market is worth $300 billion a year. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that retail prescription drug spending in the US rose to $263 billion in 2011, and did so at a faster rate compared to previous years. This rise was attributed to increased prices, especially for new and existing brand name medications. Following this trend, pharmaceutical companies are striving to what they do best—increase profits. A key component that has been linked to lead down this route of increased profits is medication adherence.

The logic seems simple enough—if  pharmaceutical companies can entice patients to remain adherent to their drugs, they can maximize profits while the patients attain the clinical benefit. Existing patients may stop taking a certain medication for any number of reasons, including costs.  Having recognized this, companies are attempting to offset the costs of losing customers by investing in incentives to keep them adherent. Pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Astra Zeneca, and GlaxoSmithKline are providing funding to patients in an effort to keep patients taking their medications. Aside from traditional coupons and vouchers, there is an increased effort in tackling the costs with patient assistance programs. For example, if a patient needs a product made by Shire, they can apply to get assistance for that medication that they otherwise would not be able to afford. While there are many groups like the Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which help patients identify companies and other affiliates that are willing to contribute to costs, one may wonder what incentive the companies who make these drugs have to give them out for free. A look at the 2011 report from the Capgemini Consulting group could explain. This report found that on average, it costs pharma 62% more to market to new patients versus the costs of keeping existing ones.

While it would be comforting to know that pharmaceutical companies are funding medications for the sole satisfaction of increasing accessibility of costly drugs, it’s not pragmatic. Money does make the world go round—especially if you are talking about the $300 billion pharmaceutical world. While the palms of big pharma continue to itch, we can only hope they keep the importance of adherence on their minds.

Anita A. Pothen, PharmD ‘14


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