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By Marie Daghlian

Sales of prescription drugs in the United States grew just 2.3 percent last year, markedly lower than the 5.1 percent growth rate in 2009, according to a new study from IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. IMS attributed the slow growth to fewer visits to the doctor and fewer people starting new therapies.

Total dollars spent on medications in the United States reached $307.4 billion last year—$898 per person. The volume of prescription medicines consumed overall also rose at historically low levels in 2010.

"Last year, we saw the convergence of key dynamics leading to diminished growth in drug spending, which included the greater use of generics, loss of patent protection for major branded products, slower demand, and less spending on new therapies," says Michael Kleinrock, director of research development, IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. "Moreover, fewer patients visited physician offices and initiated new chronic therapy treatments last year, likely the result of the slower economy."

IMS declining demand in nearly every major therapy area as patients made 4.2 percent fewer visits to doctors in 2010. The total number of patients starting new treatments for chronic conditions fell by 3.4 million compared to the previous year. High unemployment levels and the rising costs of healthcare, as well as patients spending more carefully on healthcare, were possible contributors, IMS said.

"It became apparent in 2010 that the healthcare landscape is shifting in significant ways" says Kleinrock. "Physicians and patients have more therapy options than ever, and yet spending on medicines is rising at historic lows with the impact of patent expiries and reduced patient activity. The long-term effect on patient health of fewer doctor office visits and new therapy starts is unclear and requires closer attention."

Spending on branded pharmaceuticals declined 0.7 percent in 2010, while spending on branded generics rose 4.5 percent and unbranded generics spending rose 21.7 percent. Generics now account for 78 percent of all retail prescriptions dispensed—a result of the greater availability of molecules in generic form as patents expire, along with patients choosing lower-cost options. On average, more than 80 percent of a brand's prescription volume is replaced by generics within six months of patent loss.

"It became apparent in 2010 that the healthcare landscape is shifting in significant ways" says Kleinrock. "Physicians and patients have more therapy options than ever, and yet spending on medicines is rising at historic lows with the impact of patent expiries and reduced patient activity. The long-term effect on patient health of fewer doctor office visits and new therapy starts is unclear and requires closer attention."

Source: Growth in U.S. Drug Sales Slows