Opinion

Patient Assistance Programs: You Need to Know About them to Benefit

In the current debate about drug prices, critics charge pharmaceutical companies with pricing their products out of reach of patients, thereby denying them needed treatment. What that argument ignores is that virtually all pharmaceutical companies have programs in place that provide drugs for free or at reduced cost to those who cannot afford them.

These patient assistance programs have existed for decades and have provided millions of patients without insurance or with low incomes the medicines they need. Yet despite their existence and success, too few people know about these programs or how to access them.

A recent survey conducted by APCO Insight among health care opinion leaders and health care providers sheds some light on why this problem exists and what can be done to address it.

The survey found that both the majority of health care providers (HCPs), 51 percent, and opinion leaders – 54 percent – believe that only a few pharmaceutical companies – as opposed to most or all – offer patient assistance programs. Fifteen percent even indicate that they are not aware of any pharmaceutical companies that offer these programs.

Given all the promotion that pharmaceutical companies do about their assistance programs this is hard to understand.

However, by looking at two areas explored in the survey we can gain some insight into this dynamic. First, we can see what role physicians see for themselves in letting patients know about these programs. Second, we can see who the pharmaceutical companies educate about these programs.

Among physicians, 40 percent believe that finding and accessing these program is the responsibility of patients.  A similar percentage (42 percent) of opinion leaders share that same opinion. This finding is reflected in what we know about where patients get their information about these programs. Only 10 percent of patients reported seeking this information directly from a health care provider. Instead, the majority of patients- 60 percent – search for information from pharmaceutical company websites, nearly half consult friends and over a quarter seek information from insurance companies.

However, pharmaceutical companies primarily promote their patient assistance programs to physicians and other HCPs and 73 percent of HCPs surveyed reported that company sales representatives are their primary source of information about these programs. However, since only 21 percent of physicians, both primary and specialists, see connecting patients to assistance programs as their responsibility and patients don’t turn to physicians for information about these programs, educating physicians about these programs doesn’t necessarily translate into more patients accessing them.

Clearly, pharmaceutical companies need to do more direct outreach and education about these programs to those who might benefit or need them. Either that or they can try and change HCP thinking about their responsibility in educating their own patients.

The best news from the survey is that patient assistance programs are considered accessible. Both patients and providers are very confident they could gain access to these programs for themselves or for others. The average rating, on a scale of 0-10 where 10 is most confident, is high: opinion leaders (7.5) just above HCPs (7.2). Additionally, younger patients and providers (ages 18 to 34) are significantly more aware of patient assistance programs than those aged 50 and up (52 percent versus 13 percent), a potentially promising trend for increasing program usage.

However, as the survey indicates, there is much work to be done to bridge the gap between perceived public awareness, use and accessibility. Given these survey results, pharmaceutical companies should consider expanding their outreach, raising awareness of patient access programs requires targeted outreach to patients and caregivers through a wide range of communication techniques. It can be direct, or through groups and organizations that serve potential patients in need or where they might be, such as at hospital emergency rooms. This communication to patients and caregivers should convey a meaningful commitment to expanding access to medicines through robust programs.

They should also act collectively: The industry must come together in action. Though companies may execute patient assistance programs individually, collective action can better show that the industry stands behind helping those who may need assistance in paying for medicines they need.

Pharmaceutical companies’ access programs are a lifeline to many patients who otherwise can’t afford their medicines. In order to improve access to these programs more people need to know about them, and it is clear that companies should start by informing more directly the patients they serve.

Courtney Piron is an executive director at APCO Worldwide and leads their Global Health Care Policy Practice. Previously she had worked in the pharmaceutical industry. For more results of this reputation study visit: http://www.apcoworldwide.com/blog?tag=ROR