Brand-name and generic medicines: Both play an important role in health care today

by Larry Lucas

larry-lucas-image.GIFMy job representing America’s pharmaceutical research companies requires me to be on the road a lot. As a “road warrior,” I spend a great deal of time in communities across the country talking to patients about the health care issues that matter most to them. Without a doubt, the most common question asked of me is, “Larry, what’s the difference between the generic and brand-name medicines my doctor prescribes?”

First, let’s consider brand-name medicines. New, brand-name medicines are on the cutting-edge of science with each medicine representing an average of $1 billion and 12 to 15 years of research and development. Creating and discovering these breakthrough medicines is complex; the chances of a drug making it from the lab to your medicine cabinet are remarkably small. On average, only five of every 10,000 compounds investigated make it to clinical trials. Of those five, only one is ever approved for patient use.

With the time, money and risk involved with creating and discovering new medicines, some may wonder why we bother. The answer is simple: New medicines help people live longer, healthier lives. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that new medicines account for 40 percent of the increase in longer life spans. And while new medicines might cost more than older ones, they can help save on overall health care costs. A study by Columbia University economist Frank Lichtenberg found that each additional dollar spent on using a newer prescription medicine (instead of an older one) saves more than $5 in other health expenses.

Each patient is unique in how their bodies respond to particular medications, and there might be instances where your doctor determines an older medicine with a generic equivalent to be your best treatment option. But what is a generic medicine, exactly? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a generic drug as a copy of a brand-name drug in dosage, safety, strength, how it is taken, quality, performance and intended use. Generic medicines play an important role in health care today; they currently account for 67 percent of medicines prescribed, according to data from IMS Health. But only your physician can decide if a generic medicine is best for you.

Everyone wants to save money, of course, and taking the generic equivalent of brand-name medicines can be a good way to do that. But generic medicines might not always be the best option for you. First, not every medicine has a generic equivalent. Second, generics may have different dosage requirements. For example, the brand-name version of a medicine may require you to take the medication once daily, whereas the generic version requires you to take it three times per day. This kind of change might not work for you. As with any prescription medicine – generic or brand-name – it’s important to consult your physician about all of your health care options.

The Partnership for Prescription Assistance (1-888-4PPA-NOW or, a national program sponsored by America’s pharmaceutical research companies, can also help you save on your prescription medicines. This program provides a single point of access to information on more than 475 patient assistance programs. More than 2,500 brand-name and generic prescription medicines are available through the participating programs. So far, the program has already helped nearly 5 million people in need nationwide.

America’s pharmaceutical research companies are committed to helping patients, and that means developing newer, better medicines. One of every five dollars in revenue is poured back into research and development. This investment is making a significant impact on many health conditions that disproportionally affect African Americans; today there are 114 medicines in development to treat cardiovascular disease, 95 medicines in development for diabetes and 67 medicines that target HIV infection. These medicines will go a long way to helping close the health disparity for our community.

Larry Lucas is a vice president for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

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