Generic versus brand name drugs: What’s the difference?

Navigating Healthcare

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jun 9, 2015

generic drugs

Many people—and even some doctors—view generic drugs like generic knockoffs of their favorite breakfast cereal. You trade taste and quality for a lower price.

But fortunately, this isn’t the case. Prescription drugs don’t work that way. Generic drugs and brand name drugs may look different, but it turns out, the ingredients are the same. Here’s what you should know.

What is a generic drug?

A generic drug is a copy of a brand-name drug. It legally has to have the same active ingredients as the drug it copies, and its manufacturer must demonstrate to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that it performs in the same way as the original.

Generic drugs may look different from the brand name because trademark laws require that an original drug’s appearance cannot be copied.

People typically tend to associate price with quality. In this case, a brand-name drug has a patent of up to 20 years, allowing it to price the drug high enough to recoup its research and development costs. Once the patent runs out, other companies that do not have those startup costs can make generic versions closer to the manufacturing price.

Tips for saving money on prescription drugs

The FDA estimates generics cost 20 to 70 percent less than their brand equivalents. But remember, it’s the same active ingredients, so the quality you’re getting is the same as if you were to pay for the brand name equivalent. Be sure and talk to your doctor or pharmacist to make sure you’re getting the best option for not just your health, but also your financial needs.

Here is how you can ensure you are getting the most cost-effective medicine:

  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist: “Is there a generic for the medicine you are prescribing?”
  • Review your prescriptions regularly with your doctor or pharmacist. Your brand name drug may have a new, low-cost generic alternative that you did not know about.
  • Go online. Find out what generic drugs the FDA has approved.
  • Price before you buy. Patients often have a choice of brand versus generic after they find out the price of each at the pharmacy.
  • Know the name and dosage of drugs you are taking so you can intelligently search for a generic equivalent.

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