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Generic vs. brand name drugs

Find out the differences between the two and how to choose what’s best for you

drugsYou’re about to go on a first date. When your date comes to the door, he is holding a bouquet of roses. You are instantly impressed that he has taken the time to stop by one of those expensive florists and pick out an arrangement just for you.

“They’re beautiful,” you say. “They must have cost a fortune.”

“Not really. I picked them up at the grocery store on the way here.”

Now the flowers look a little less beautiful.

This is how some people feel about generic medicines. But is the drug—less attractive in its packaging—still just as effective?

Scott & White pharmacist, Emory Martin PharmD, said the potency of these medications is just as strong as their brand name counterparts and will be less of a strain on your wallet.

What constitutes a generic drug?

When a drug is invented, the company that owns the patent is the sole provider of the drug and they are free to set the price at whatever they think the market will allow. That’s typically a high price, according to the pharmacist

“A generic medication is one that is off patent protection and is available to be manufactured and sold by any number of drug manufacturers,” Dr. Martin said. “This sort of competition naturally drives the price of the medication down.”

What are the differences between generic and name brand drugs?

“When a drug manufacturer brings a new drug to market, the company is required to demonstrate to the FDA, through multiple clinical trials, that the drug is safe and effective and that there’s very little variability from tablet to tablet,” Dr. Martin said. “When the generic manufacturer applies to the FDA after the drug has lost its patent protection, they are only required to conduct a few small clinical trials in healthy volunteers. They are simply required to show that their generic formulation delivers the active ingredient in an equivalent manner to the original patented drug product.”

Because the generic drug companies aren’t required to repeat extensive clinical trials, this can lead some patients to worry that the medications aren’t as effective. But, the pharmacist—who has been practicing for 30 years—said this is not the case.

“In some cases, generic drug products are actually still being made by the original manufacturer of the drug. It’s sort of like buying the generic brand at the grocery store,” he said. “You have the Dole pineapple next to the store brand on the shelf. Many times that store brand pineapple is really Dole pineapple with a store brand label on it being sold at a cheaper price.”

Is it ever a good idea to stick with a name brand instead of opting for a generic medication?

There are two scenarios in which using a brand name medication might be a good idea – if only for peace of mind.

  1. When using transplant medications. The risk of losing a transplanted heart or kidney because of poor drug performance is so great that many transplant programs choose to continue brand name products even though a generic is available. Doctors and/or patients are just not willing to take a gamble, even if the gamble is very slight.
  2. When suffering from a serious medical condition. If a patient is suffering from a seizure disorder, and they are worried about any slight change in the way the drug is being absorbed into the body, they might take the brand name product because they want to avoid a serious medical event.

But even though there are cases where doctors and patients might opt for the name brand, Dr. Martin said that for most medical conditions, the generic medication works just as well. And most hospitals and chain pharmacies only carry generic drugs made by reputable generic drug manufacturers.

But if you’re still feeling uneasy about buying a generic medication, ask your pharmacist what companies they use to supply their generic drugs and check those companies out.

“You want your pharmacist to say, this is one of the generic manufacturers I get many of my products from. I’ve been buying from them for several years and they’re really well-known,” Dr. Martin said.

What if I take a generic medicine and it doesn’t work as well as my brand name drug?

“I have some patients who say that they will only take name brand Vicodin for pain because they swear that generic hydrocodone and acetaminophen pills don’t work as well,” the pharmacist said. “Part of the response—especially to pain pills—is a little bit of a placebo effect. And people who want brand name products typically end up paying a lot of money out of pocket.”

Aside from the placebo-effect, there can be real variability in the performance of medications. But it isn’t because the medication is generic. It is because the patient is taking the drug in a different way each time they swallow.

“When you take drugs by mouth, some days with a hot drink, some days with a cold drink, some days with a fatty meal and some days on an empty stomach, you’re going to get variable drug levels out of that oral product,” Mr. Martin said. “I would generally say that the variability with how you take these medications day-to-day is going to affect the result much more than if you bought it from a generic or a brand name manufacturer.”

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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Generic vs. brand name drugs