More than one in 10 people prescribed a brand-name drug never bother to pick it up, according to a new report cited in the Wall Street Journal this week. The rate of “abandonment” is almost double the percentage 4 years ago, when such data was first tracked. It’s a sobering statistic, and the Journal suggests that pricing is to blame. Co-pays have been rising, gradually in some cases, not-so-gradually in other cases, forcing patients to make a decision on the fly as to whether it’s worth it to even go to the pharmacy.
The skyrocketing abandonment rate should also be a wake-up call for communicators. Historically, our industry has been interested in what happens between a patient’s symptom emerging and the prescription being written, such as disease awareness and physician education. But in a meaningful number of cases, the breakdown happens after the patient leaves the doctor’s office.
This doesn’t just lead to bad medicine. It’s expensive for the system as a whole. Skipping asthma drugs makes ER visits more likely. Forgoing heart medicine boost heart attack risk. And given that the average inpatient stay runs the system north of $7,000 a day in costs, reducing abandonment isn’t about selling more drugs; it’s about mitigating larger risks – and costs.
What can we do? For starters, we can begin to give doctors and patients the tools to have a dialogue about drug costs so that no patient is ever blindsided when they realize that what’s written the prescription pad might have an insurmountable co-pay. And we can and should continue to work hard to make sure that every patient is aware of patient assistance programs. One of the anecdotes in the Wall Street Journal story concerns a woman who decided not to fill her son’s asthma prescription, but who eventually received financial assistance to get her son the proper treatment. Readers are left with a feeling of regret that she didn’t get that help sooner.
Relative to the many of parts of the health care system, medication is a great deal. Drugs provide interventions that are proven to work and generally cost far, far less than the adverse outcomes they are designed to prevent. But the system only works when patients feel they can get access. And we now know that system breaks down 10 percent of the time. As communicators, we have a huge opportunity — and a huge obligation — to change that.