It included nearly 800 patients at nine primary care sites in the province of Ontario, who were prescribed 128 essential medications such as antibiotics, pain relievers, antipsychotics and HIV-AIDS drugs, but had trouble sticking to the regimen because they couldn't afford them.
In the study, some of the patients received their essential medications at no cost while a control group had only their usual access to their medications.
After 12 months into the three-year study, the patients who received their medications free of charge were 44% more likely to take their medications.
That group of patients also had reductions in blood pressure and were 160% more likely to make their household ends meet, according to the study published Oct. 7 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
"It is sad that in a high-income country like Canada, millions of Canadians cannot afford their prescribed medications - including lifesaving medicines such as insulin," said lead author Dr. Nav Persaud. He is a clinician scientist at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.
"We hope that our findings help inform public policy changes. This is no longer a question of whether free distribution of medicines can improve health outcomes. It is a question of whether governments will act," Persaud added in a hospital news release.
The list of 128 essential medicines made available to patients in the study was adapted from the World Health Organization's Model List of Essential Medicines and based on Canadian clinical practice guidelines, suggestions from doctors and patients and prescription data.
Canada is a suitable place to assess the impacts of free medicine distribution because while health care services such as physician visits and hospitalizations are publicly funded, there are cost barriers to medications, Persaud explained.