Brand Name vs. Generic Prescriptions: What’s the Difference?

Brand Name vs. Generic Prescriptions: What’s the Difference?

May 19 2017

Prescription drugs come in all shapes and sizes, and can vary in price for the same type of medicine.

By: Erica Clark

If you’ve recently filled a prescription at the pharmacy, you may be aware that you have a choice between brand name and generic drugs. You may have asked yourself, why do generics cost less? Do they work as well?

So what is the difference between brand name and generic drugs? The short answer: not much, but it’s not quite that simple.

What is a generic drug?

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a generic drug is identical — or bioequivalent — to a brand name drug in dosage form, safety, strength, route of administration, quality, performance characteristics and intended use. This means that a generic drug acts the same way in the body that the brand name drug would, is intended to treat the same conditions, and is taken the same way. Generic drug manufacturers must ensure that their product is the same as a brand name drug in order to get FDA approval.

How are generic drugs different from brand name drugs?

The most obvious difference between generic and brand name drugs is the price. Generic drugs are usually significantly less expensive, typically 80 to 85 percent less costly, than the brand name counterparts. In fact, taking FDA-approved generic drugs saved American consumers $158 billion in 2010.

While the active ingredients are the same in generics as they are in brand name drugs, the inactive ingredients are not required to be identical. This does explain why some people may experience different side-effects when taking the generic version, though this is uncommon.

Priority Health_Education_Prescription Coverage_Generic vs Brand_Taking Pills

Why do generic drugs cost less than brand name drugs?

Generic drugs come at a lower price point because they are made by drug companies after the original patent for the brand name alternative expires. This means that the companies that make the generic version do not have to pay for research and development, marketing or promotion. This allows them to price the drug at a lower rate, benefiting the consumer.

The use of generic drugs has been on the rise in recent years with nearly 8 in 10 prescriptions filled in the United States being the generic option. This usage has helped patients and hospitals save billions of dollars every year and it’s estimated that patients could save at least two-thirds of their drug costs if they opted for generic drugs.

Generic drug manufacturers must ensure that their product is the same as a brand name drug in order to get FDA approval.

Do generic drugs work differently than brand name drugs?

No. In fact, the FDA requires that generic drugs pass the same tests for quality, potency, side effects, etc., that are required of brand name drugs. This means that, even though generics cost much less, they are of the same quality as any brand name drug. The FDA continues to investigate and research any differences between brand name drugs and generics, in an effort to eliminate even the smallest of differences.

The FDA has also made it easy to check medication options. Patients can search for generic equivalents by using the Electronic Orange Book by searching by the brand name, and then by the active ingredient name. If other manufacturers are listed with the brand name manufacturer when searching the active ingredient, they are the generic product manufacturers.

While there is no difference in the active ingredients, there is a significant cost difference, which likely explains why 80 percent of all prescription drugs filled are for generic drugs, according to the FDA. If you are currently taking a prescription, or are prescribed one in the future, ask your doctor about a generic option and if it would work well for you.  

About the Author: Erica Clark is a clinically trained pharmacist and the director of clinical pharmacy programs for Priority Health. She holds a doctorate of pharmacy from Ferris State University.