A Medicine By Any Other Name

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Medicines are as confusing as they are expensive.  Your doctor prescribes you Prevacid for your heartburn, but you get a bottle of something called Lansoprazole.  You ask your pharmacist for some Advil for your headache, but he grabs a bottle of Ibuprofen off the shelf.  What’s going on? 

What’s going on is a name game, my friends, and if you learn the rules, you will save yourself some serious cash over the next few years.

Medicines can have two names: a generic name and a brand name.  The generic name is the actual scientific name of the drug and the brand name is a specific trade name used by a specific manufacturer.  So are brand and generic medications the same?

For all intents and purposes – yes.  In order for a generic medication to be allowed onto the market, it has to have the exact same active ingredient at the exact same strength as the brand name. Where they are allowed to differ is color, shape, size, etc.  So unless you have an allergy to certain dyes, you shouldn’t have any problem with the generic version.

So why are brand name medications so much more expensive if they are the exact same medicine as the generic?  Unfettered greed on the part of the Big Pharma evil empire?  Not exactly…

A drug company may spend millions of dollars to develop a new medicine and bring it to market.  After the patent runs out, the drug’s secret formula is no longer a secret and generic manufacturers can swoop in and sell it without having to invest any of that time and money so they can charge a lot less. That’s good for us, but the brand manufacturer needs to cover their development cost and turn a profit so they are given the patent window to do so. 

Where it gets a little shady is in the realm of what you could call “copy cat” medicines.  When a brand name drug is about to go off patent, drug companies will sometimes launch a “new” drug that is really just a slightly tweaked version of the old one.  They’re technically different medicines so the patent clock gets reset, but they essentially do the same thing.  When your health care provider gives you a prescription, it can never hurt to ask if there is a generic equivalent available.  It can save you big bucks.

In my next post, I’ll give you a quiz – match the generic medicine to its brand name.  Unlike most of the tests you take here at Ohio State, this one could actually save you money!

Jason Goodman, PharmD, RPh