The Generic Drug Myth That Could Be Costing You Money

Don’t trust generics? Yeah, about that…(Getty Images)

New research – in a very small study –  from New Zealand reveals that people believe brand-name drugs are more effective than their generic versions.

Investigators gathered 87 college students who suffered from frequent headaches and instructed them to treat four headaches with pills labeled either “Nurofen” or “generic ibuprofen.” (Nurofen is equivalent to Motrin.) While two of the pills were placebos and didn’t contain any active medication, the other two actually contained ibuprofen.

As a result, the volunteers reported the same amount of relief from the Nurofen tablets that contained ibuprofen as they did from the placebos that were labeled Nurofen. Yet they reported less relief from the generic tablets, even though some contained real ibuprofen.

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“I am not surprised that people perceive name brand medications as being superior to generic medications,” C. Michael White, Pharm.D., FCP, FCCP, Professor & Head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at the University of Connecticut, tells Yahoo Health. “People innately believe that you get what you pay for and if it isn’t cheaper, it must be better.” 

Andrew F. Leuchter, MD, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA agrees. “It’s really a matter of do people perceive an item as having intrinsic value,” he tells Yahoo Health. “And our values are shaped by a lot of things in the environment—information about what other people think, information about costs—so it’s a complex matter. But in general, people do not perceive generics as having as high value as something with slick packaging and a brand name.”

However, these assumptions aren’t totally without merit. Dr. Leuchter refers to the 2012 product recall of the generic version of the anti-depressant med Wellbutrin, Bupropion. “It turned out that the generic didn’t have the same characteristics as the brand, and some people were relapsing,” he says. “There have been a few instances like that — not very many — but enough such that people think generics aren’t as good.”

White adds that while the data on several diseases, including blood clotting disorders, are “pretty clear that generics are equally effective as name brand products when directly compared,” that wasn’t the case in the area of epilepsy medications. “It was found that switching from a brand to a generic or from a generic to a brand can increase the risk of going to the emergency department,” he says. “It isn’t that the drug versions are less effective—just that there is some blood concentration alterations during the first couple weeks after the switch that can cause instability. This has not been shown to occur in any other disease, though.”

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Also, the power of advertising can sway people’s beliefs. “There are only two countries in the world that allow direct-to-consumer advertising—the United States and New Zealand,” states Dr. Leuchter. “So the fact they find in New Zealand that people prefer brand name drugs is an interesting discovery. Maybe it’s a total coincidence, but it happens to be the only other country in the world that allows this practice.”

Contrary to public opinion, both professors feel generic drugs have their place in the market. “It is a shame because generic medications are a fabulous low-risk way to reduce the cost of therapy in almost every case,” states White.

“There are certain classes of drugs for which I personally would hesitate to prescribe a generic drug,” concludes Dr. Leuchter. “But, in general, generics are safe and effective.”

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