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What’s the Difference between Generic and Brand-name Medications?

Generic vs. Brand Prescriptions

What’s the difference between generic and brand-name medications?

We tend to feel mistrustful of anything we deem a “knockoff,” assuming we’ll end up with a lesser version of the real thing. With “we get what we pay for” a familiar refrain, we learn to associate better quality with a higher price. So when it comes to generic medications, which can cost 85% less than their brand-name counterparts, it’s no wonder we may cast a suspicious eye. However, unlike a bootleg movie or copycat handbag, generic medications are tightly controlled by the FDA, ensuring they offer the same safety, quality, and results.

If generic and brand-name medications work the same way, what accounts for the disparity in price? Let’s unravel the facts to discover how this system works. 

Is a generic medication exactly the same as the brand-name version?

According to the FDA, “Generic medicines use the same active ingredients as brand-name medicines and work the same way, so they have the same risks and benefits as the brand-name medicines.” In order to get approval, a generic medication must have the same dosage, strength, safety, manufacturing standards, quality, and effectiveness, and it even needs to be administered in the exact same way.

There is some room for variability between the different versions, however. As C. Michael White, Pharm.D., Professor and Head, Department of Pharmacy Practice, University of Connecticut, explained in an article for the Huffington Post, “the [generic] pill needs to get you within 10 percent above or below the blood concentrations achieved with the brand for the FDA to approve the generic, and in reality, they only usually vary by 3-4 percent in one direction or another. So yes, they are very similar in terms of the active ingredient...Most people will never notice a difference.” According to the FDA, this level of variability is unlikely to have an impact, and could also occur between two batches of the same brand medication. 

Additionally, the inactive ingredients, or the ones with no therapeutic purpose, may differ. Manufacturers might use different binding materials, dyes, and preservatives, but they must prove to the FDA that they’re safe. It is possible, however, that you could be sensitive or allergic to something that’s in one particular version but not another.

How do the different versions come about?

When a brand-name medication enters the market, it is protected by patents and granted a period of exclusivity. In other words, the company that first created the medication has the sole right to sell it for a certain period of time. It takes an incredible amount of money to develop a new medication and see it through the necessary clinical trials—it’s estimated between $2-3 billion per new drug—so this helps drug companies recoup some of that cost. 

Most drugs are granted protection from competition for 5 years, though it can be more or less under certain circumstances. Once the period of exclusivity expires, generic versions of the medication are allowed to seek approval from the FDA to enter the market. 

Why are the generic versions so much cheaper?

Generic medications usually (but not always) cost much less than their brand-name counterparts because they do not have to repeat the expensive research and clinical trials that brand-name drugs undergo to prove they’re safe and effective. Plus, once one or more generic versions enter the market, competition can help drive down the prices. 

So a generic medication can really achieve the same effect for a fraction of the price?

In most cases, yes. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “The bulk of research out there shows that taking the no-name brand not only saves you money, but also provides you with a medication that is just as effective as the original.”

That being said, individual sensitivities can vary, so listen to your body and always report side effects to your doctor. 

Is a brand-name ever the better choice?

If you’re prescribed what is known as a “narrow therapeutic index drug (NTI),” your doctor may recommend that you stick to the brand-name version. That’s because small changes in blood concentration can either render these medications ineffective or possibly cause harm. If you are taking an NTI, such as certain antiseizure medications and blood thinners, it doesn’t mean that you can’t switch to a generic version if it’s available. You’ll want to fully discuss it with your doctor and ensure that you’re closely monitored if you’re cleared to make the switch. 

And again, it’s possible to have sensitivities to a specific version of your medication. If you experience side effects after switching to a generic drug, you may want to consider resuming the brand-name version or trying another generic option. 

How can I make the switch?

Unless your doctor has specified that your prescription is only for the name-brand medication, your pharmacist can suggest a generic option instead. Your insurance company may even require that you take the less expensive generic option or pay the difference for the brand-name version. The team at Alto will always help you find the best price for your prescription by presenting you with all of the options. If you’re curious about whether a generic version is available for any of your current prescriptions, we’d be happy to talk it through with you. Our pharmacists are just a chat, text, or phone call away.

In the world of prescription medications, “brand-name” doesn’t mean better. Most of the time, you can achieve the exact same results for a fraction of the price with a generic drug. According to a report by the IQVIA Institute, generics account for approximately 90% of all prescriptions but only about 20% of the overall costs. They estimate that generic medications saved the U.S. healthcare system $1.67 trillion from 2007 to 2016. If you’re cleared to take a generic version of your prescription, you can do so with full confidence—and hopefully some hefty savings. 

Did you know Alto will conduct price investigations for you? Our team is available 9 am - 9 pm PT Monday - Friday and 10 am - 6 pm PT on weekends; call or text 1-800-874-5881 or download the mobile app for secure messaging.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.