A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Generic vs. name-brand medication

Patients often ask pharmacists if generic vs. name-brand medication is better.

Woman wondering if her generic vs. name-brand medication is better

Holly Dillenbeck, a Marshfield Clinic Health System pharmacist, explains that there are no major differences between generic and brand name drugs.

“Generic drugs have the same active ingredient as brand name drugs. They differ in the inactive or filler ingredients,” Dillenbeck said. “The FDA requires generic manufacturers to prove their drug has the same makeup as the brand name version.”

The cost of new medicines

It is expensive for new, name-brand medicines because the company completes costly clinical trials and then participates in expensive advertising and marketing once their drug is approved by the FDA to go on the market.

New drugs have patents, which means only the pharmaceutical company that developed the drug can manufacture, market and make a profit on that patented drug. Once that patent runs out, generic drug manufacturers can begin to create the medication. As companies introduce more generic medicines for that name-brand medicine, the price reduces.

As noted in an FDA study, drug prices for 58 name-brand drugs in 2021 dropped more than 50% in the first year after generic drugs were approved. An additional 161 name-brand drugs dropped prices 25-50%.

Generic drugs may work just as good

In many cases, there may be generic drugs available for the same conditions a name-brand medicine can help with. In these instances, the biggest difference in generic vs. name-brand medication is often the cost.

“To control costs, doctors first usually prescribe older generic medications,” Dillenbeck said. “If the traditional therapies don’t work, doctors may prescribe a newer brand name drug.”

Furthermore, new medications often require prior authorization from a patient’s insurance.

“This means the doctor or doctor’s nurse may have to call your insurance or fill out paperwork before the insurance will decide if they will pay for the medication,” Dillenbeck said.

Currently there are also severe drug shortages for some medicines. 2023 saw some of the worst drug shortages in nearly a decade according to the American Society of Health System Pharmacists.

Shortages can be due to:

  • Increase in demand
  • Manufacturing and quality problems
  • Supply chain gaps
  • Discontinuations

Patients should check with their doctor if their pharmacy can’t get the patient’s medication due to a drug shortage.  Patients may have to try a prescription drug in the same family as another drug that is unavailable. Patients could also call around to other pharmacies to see if stock is available as different pharmacy chains have different wholesalers.

“We are seeing drug shortages on a daily basis in the pharmacy,” said Dillenbeck. “You can talk to your pharmacist for advice if this happens with your medicine.”

Safety is a concern for new medicines

Pharmaceutical companies advertise new drugs on the market to patients via commercials and magazine ads.

Companies want patients to see the commercials or flyers and ask their doctor to prescribe the medicine. This can be good to help patients strike up conversations with their doctor, but remember the primary goal isn’t always to help the patient but to sell their product. Sometimes, companies advertise these medicines before there is even FDA approval.

“Just because a drug is new, doesn’t mean it is better or safe for you,” Dillenbeck said. “I like to stand by an older drug because it takes time for a medication to establish its safety record.”

Your doctor or pharmacist is the best source of information when deciding the right medications for you.

“Consumers need to be educated about these drugs,” she said. “Just because it is on TV, doesn’t mean it is safe.”

If you have questions about a prescription or a drug you are currently taking, contact your doctor or your local pharmacist.

For medication questions, talk to a Marshfield Clinic Health System pharmacist.

Find a pharmacy location Learn more about Pharmacy services

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