Generics v. Brand-Name: A Rose By Any Other Name?

As consumers, we have been repeatedly told that generic drugs are exact copies of their brand-name counterparts. We have been forced by insurers to accept generics over brand-name drugs. This is done by the insurer imposing financial disincentives and refusing to honor our physicians’ prescriptions without getting the doctor’s office to confirm the prescription. Pharmacies substitute generics for brand-name drugs without asking us first or telling us when they have made the switch. All the while there is an unsettling and nagging question in the back of our brains about whether generics are truly equivalent.

The FDA has taken the position that generics are equivalent, but the public is not informed about the agency’s standard of review: a generic is deemed “bioequivalent” if it achieves 80 to 125% of what the brand-name drug provides. This is a huge variance, and one we don’t accept in many human endeavors, whether we are talking about a pilot landing a plane or sending in what we owe to the IRS.

Indeed, specialists acknowledge a growing concern that patient experiences on generics are problematic, especially for those patients who have conditions that present significant risk of injury if chronic conditions are not properly treated, as in epilepsy or atrial fibrillation. For example, The American Academy of Neurology has released a position paper on generics, stating that: “The A.A.N. opposes generic substitution of anticonvulsant drugs for the treatment of epilepsy without the attending physician’s approval.”

If you take medications for a condition that has the risk of significant injury or death if your medications are not effective, you should discuss this concern about generics with your prescribing physician. Become an informed consumer about the generic drug you are being asked to take. And regardless what you are told, pay close attention to your symptoms and changes in your condition after taking generics so that you can determine from your own experience whether a generic drug is right for you.


New York Times, Dec. 17, 2009

The People’s Pharmacy, Dec. 17, 2009

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