What's the difference between brand-name drugs and generics?
The difference between brand-name drugs and generics can be very small. In almost all cases, generics work as well as their brand-name siblings, often costing considerably less. The reason for the variation in cost is not because of lower quality, but because research and advertising costs for the generics is much lower than the original cost for the brand name drug.
What causes the difference in cost?
Brand-name drugs cost significantly more than generics because of the considerable cost and research time commitment that goes into the development of new drugs. Once a new drug formula is found, drug companies must go through a long testing phase to make sure the drug is safe for use. Because of these investments, a drug company can hold exclusive patent rights to make a drug for 20 years after its discovery. After that, other companies can start making generic versions of the drug - often at a considerable savings to pharmaceutical companies. When scientists develop a new drug, they give it a generic name reflecting its chemical makeup. Once the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the drug, the manufacturer markets it with a brand or trade name, which is usually shorter and easier to remember.
When should generics be used?
Many insurance plans encourage you to accept the generic version of a drug whenever it's medically safe. Most states let pharmacists substitute a generic whenever your doctor approves it. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that generics be "bioequivalent" to their brand-name counterparts in order to get an "A" or top rating. This means the body can absorb generics as much and as fast as brand-name drugs. Some pharmacies sell only "A"-rated generics.
When shouldn't generics be substituted for brand-name drugs?
Very few drugs have a "narrow therapeutic index," meaning that a small variation in dose can cause problems, such as too little effectiveness or too many side effects. With some drugs, including phenytoin (Dilantin®), warfarin (Coumadin®), and theophylline, you shouldn't switch from brand to generic - or vice versa - without your doctor's approval and close supervision. Always talk to your doctor, pharmacist, or both before asking for a substitute. They'll probably refer to the Food and Drug Administration's Approved Drug Products with Therapeutic Equivalence Evaluations, also known as "the orange book."