Medication, whether bought on prescription or over the counter, can be expensive. Those glossy packages are inviting and re-assuring, but they come with a price tag. However, a careful study of the active ingredients may show that they contain the same ingredients as the drab packets on the next shelf costing a fraction of the price. Can it possibly be right to buy the cheaper option?

Why Such a Difference?

Producing a new drug is a very expensive process. First the pharmaceutical company must invest in research, paying highly skilled professionals and equipping laboratories. Then they must trial the drugs to the high standards required by the FDA. Then there are the usual marketing costs. All this can add up to billions of dollars for a single new drug.

The company is then granted a patent to be the sole producer of the medication, usually for about 12 years. During that time it charges what it calculates it needs in order to get back the money it has invested. When the patent expires, then other companies are allowed to produce a generic version of the drug—they can do it much more cheaply because they don’t have the development overheads.

The original company will normally continue to market the drug relying on the established brand name to justify a high price, or other companies may push up the price by their own marketing strategies. But usually the generic version is available at little more than the actual production cost.

Are They Really the Same?

All drugs marketed in the US, whether prescription-only or over the counter, are subject to identical stringent checks by the FDA. The FDA has therefore made it clear that when you buy a generic drug you are getting exactly the same active ingredients as those in the branded version. That applies both to the drug that does the work in your body, and to the chemicals which enable your body to absorb the drug.

FDA tests show that the body’s ability to absorb a drug varies by less than 3.5% between generic and branded drugs, well within the acceptable limits—indeed the branded versions themselves can vary by that amount.

The only things that may be different are the cosmetic elements like appearance and taste. The brand-name drug may have a colored sugar coating which the generic version lacks, for instance.

Don’t Doctors and Pharmacists Prefer the Branded Drugs?

Where generic drugs are available, your doctor is more than likely to prescribe them. About 80% of prescribed drugs are generic. Moreover, a pharmacist may substitute a generic drug for a branded drug unless the doctor’s prescription obliges them not to. It is always worth asking your doctor and pharmacist whether you are being prescribed a generic drug, and if not why not. Insurers also favor generic drugs, for obvious reasons.

The most likely reason for you to be prescribed a brand name drug is that it is a relatively new drug still protected by patent. In this case there is no option but to buy that version. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to pay the full market cost, and there are schemes to help you find more economical ways to get your treatment. Look to Nationwide Prescription Connection for a good source of guidance.

Are There Exceptions to the Rule?

There is one specific type of drug where careful monitoring is sometimes advised for generic versions. These are ‘narrow therapeutic index’ drugs like Warfarin where there is only a narrow band between an effective and a dangerous dose. The FDA does not restrict the use of these generics, but some states do.

Another interesting exception relates to the placebo effect. This is the mysterious effect by which people tend to get better because they believe they are getting the right treatment, even if it is completely inert.

There may be an effect similar to the placebo effect in the name recognition, packaging, and price of the branded drug. It seems that when we are told that the drug we are taking is expensive, it works better than if we are told it is cheap. Is it worth the extra? Who knows?

Buy With Confidence

In many areas of life we are cautious about buying an article which appears to be a copy of something produced by a leading manufacturer, and rightly so. However, when it comes to medication, the stringent requirements of the FDA mean that we can be quite confident about buying any authorized products from a reputable source.

Archie Foster has to take numerous prescription drugs and the cost soon mounts up. But recently he has discovered a way to save money, and is sharing his find with others through his articles.


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