About a year ago I had the chance to speak with the founder of Micromedex Inc. about his views on the potential differences between brand name and generic drugs. He expressed some concern about the allergenic potential of filler substances in both brand name and generic drugs, and I was quite interested in the clinical impact of these differences.
Just recently, an article in the LA Times has shed more light on the debate about drug equivalency, and my fellow bloggers Abel Pharmboy and Joseph (at Corpus Callosum) have summarized the issues very well. As it turns out, the FDA allows for a fairly broad interpretation of equivalency when it comes to the rate at which the bioactive ingredients are released into the bloodstream.
To use an imperfect analogy – let’s pretend that water is the drug you’re taking. You can access water from a drinking fountain or a fire hydrant, and the amount you get in your mouth all at once may vary between the two sources, though the water itself is the same “drug.” This is the sort of difference that exists between some generic drugs and their brand name “equivalents.” The rate at which they get into your system can differ by as much as 36% and still be considered identical drugs by the FDA.
Now, imagine that someone offered you water in a paper cup or in a water balloon. The water’s container (analogous to the “inert filler” used to hold the medicine together in a pill or liquid form) is made of different substances (paper versus latex) and doesn’t make that much of a difference in quenching your thirst… unless you’re allergic to latex.
So there are true differences between generic and brand name drugs, though most of the time these differences are not clinically important. But in those special circumstances where people are allergic to fillers, or need a constant or regular concentration of their drug in the bloodstream, generic vs. brand name really does matter.
However, I think that in general generic drugs are terrific and have substantially reduced costs and increased access for millions of people. It is reasonable to save money by switching to generic drugs when possible. It is also important to resist the urge to believe that higher drug prices guarantee more effective products. In a recent JAMA article it was demonstrated that people believed that pain medication placebos were more effective if they were told that they were also more expensive.
But, if you’re one of those patients who tried switching to a generic drug and found it less effective – don’t let your doctor tell you you’re imagining things. There could be a real difference that you need to explore.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.