International experience in controlling pharmaceutical expenditure: influencing patients and providers and regulating industry – a systematic review

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Objective: To review international policies to control expenditure on pharmaceuticals by influencing the behaviour of patients and providers and regulating the pharmaceutical industry.

Method: Systematic review of experimental and quasi-experimental studies. Published studies were identified with an electronic search strategy using MEDLINE and EMBASE from 1980 to May 2012. Studies were eligible if they assessed the effect of policies aimed at influencing the behaviour of patients and providers, and regulating the pharmaceutical industry. Outcome measures included pharmaceutical expenditure, prices or utilization; other resource use relating to pharmaceuticals; and health outcomes and patients’ or providers’ behaviour relating to pharmaceutical use. Quality assessment criteria for each study design were developed based on the standard criteria recommended by the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care (EPOC) group.
The review includes studies based on randomized controlled trials and rigorous quasi-experimental designs (interrupted time-series and controlled before-and-after studies). Studies were excluded if they were conducted within a single hospital or practice; related to pharmaceutical care services or disease management; had less than 6 months of follow-up period (or less than 12 months overall for interrupted time series); if data in controlled before-and-after studies were not collected contemporaneously or if no rationale was stated for the choice of control group; or if relevant and interpretable data were not presented.

Results: A total of 255 studies met the inclusion criteria for this review. The majority of the studies relating to patients evaluated cost sharing interventions such as user charges (52 studies). User charges do reduce utilization of pharmaceuticals, and reduce public expenditure by shifting costs to patients. But they reduce the use of essential as well as non-essential drugs, and without adequate exemptions they affect vulnerable groups disproportionately.
The majority of studies relating to doctors evaluated the effects of educational approaches (78 studies), reimbursement restrictions (48 studies) and incentive systems (22 studies). Evidence on these policies is of mixed quality. It appears possible to influence prescribing modestly, through various means, but it is essential that messages to prescribers are based on good evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.
Twenty-nine studies related to industry regulation, and they were of mixed quality. Evidence from studies of reference pricing suggests that this may result in cost savings. These are, however, achieved not by companies reducing or restraining prices, or by reductions in the overall volume of prescriptions, but by some shifts in use and shifting costs to patients, with consequent adverse effects on the equity of access to medicines. Other price and profit controls remain almost completely lacking in evaluative evidence.

Conclusions: It may be that the undesirable consequences of policies influencing patients, particularly user charges, can outweigh the benefits. To influence demand for pharmaceuticals, it is more appropriate to influence prescribing doctors and although interventions to improve prescribing practice have been developed, they often achieve relatively modest benefits and sometimes at high cost. Good evaluative evidence related to industry regulation is scarce despite its policy importance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)52-59
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Health Services Research and Policy
Issue number1
Early online date4 Aug 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015


  • Pharmaceutical policy
  • prescribing
  • user charges
  • pharmaceutical industry
  • systematic review

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