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Generic Medications: Advantages and Drawbacks or Why do They Cost Less?

In the times of global financial crisis, the chilly breathing of which has already touched not only the largest industrial corporations and banking institutions around the globe, but also a huge amount of individuals and families, today people, perhaps as never before, are looking for the opportunities to cut their regular expenses practically in every aspect of their life. Medications and treatment costs have also been put under revision in many families.

Luckily, medicine with its pharmaceutical industry offers several legal and authorized ways to reduce the cost of medications without compromising the effectiveness and safety of the treatment. One of them and perhaps the most valuable one is the use of generic medications instead of brand products.

By definition of U.S. Food and Drug Administration, generic medication or generic drug is “a copy that is the same as a brand-name drug in dosage, safety, strength, how it is taken, quality, performance and intended use”. In other words, generics are duplicates of brand-name pills, which contain absolutely the same active ingredient and provide the same action in the human organism.

However, the differences between brand-name pills and generics still exist. The first vivid difference is their names. While branded medications have pretty nice, easy-to-remember names, like Viagra, Prozac, Chantix, etc, - their generic brothers are usually named after the chemical name of pill’s working ingredient – sildenafil, fluoxetine hydrochliride, varenicline tartrate, etc.

Another obvious difference between brand-name medications and generics is their price. And this is the primary difference, which is really important from the practical point of view, because lower price means “money-saving”.

In order to get the proof for that statement, it is enough to compare some of the prices: for example, one pill of Zyban (helps to quit smoking) costs about $3.3, while the generic version of this drug costs only $1.16, popular antidepressant Prozac costs $6.20 and its generic alternative is available for about $0.8… By choosing generic medications money saving can really be pretty substantial.

However, it is in our minds that often we treat cheaper products as worse ones. Often, it really goes that way with many products or services, but in case of generic drugs such attitude looks to be false.

The actual reason for price difference is explained by peculiarities of patent system, protecting newly discovered medications. When some pharmaceutical company first discovers a new, previously unknown chemical, which can be used as a treatment for some health disorder, and proves its effectiveness and safety through the series of clinical trials, - then the health government authority grants approval for that medication and gives company a patent for a limited period of time (usually about 15-20 years).

 The patent means that only the company developer of the medication (and no other drug manufacturer) can produce and sell a particular pill on the market till the patent expires. During this time, companies usually charge high prices for such brand-name pills to cover all the expanses on their investigation, development, clinical testing, marketing and promotion of the medication.

After patent expiration, other pharmaceutical companies are allowed to start production of the generic versions of the brand-name drugs. Since they do not have to develop a pill from the very beginning, the production costs are significantly lower; besides, the competition between several producers does not let them keep prices very high. That is why generic drugs are usually available at huge discounts in comparison to brand-name medications.

Statistics says that only in the USA, where about a half of all prescriptions are filled with generic drugs, the use of generic equivalents helps patients save about $8 to $10 billion a year. Even more money is saved when hospitals use generics.

The story of generic medications would be too perfect without mentioning some negative aspects, but in that case it would definitely be incomplete.

The first note to underline is that not every brand-name medication has its generic equivalent. Some recently developed medications, which are still protected by patent, are available only as brand-name drugs.

So, here is a dilemma – either you accept the price of a brand-name drug and get all the benefits of the revolutionary treatment of a particular disorder, or you decide to save money by choosing older treatment options, where generics are available. Please note here that older drugs are not always worse, and newer are not always better, because older drugs are usually much better tested by millions of patients.

Another problem with generics is wide spreading of unauthorized generic drugs. These are the generics, which appear before the patent for brand-name drug expires. Usually, such medications are manufactured and supplied from countries like India, and sold over the internet. Even aside of purely legal issues on patent protection, the story of unauthorized generics is very disputable and ambiguous.

On one hand, it is good that people are offered cheap generic medications without the need to wait for decades until official generics appears. On the other hand, no one can guarantee that the generic medication, produced somewhere in Asia is just the same as a brand-name drug in terms of dosage, safety, strength, quality and performance. Some of them are really good, safe and effective, produced at modern facilities, located somewhere in India instead of California; but others could be really dangerous because of impurities, undeclared compounds and improper dosages. 

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Anyway, whether to use generic alternatives of the brand-name drugs will always be a personal choice. Both options have their incontestable benefits. In case of generics low price and complete bioequivalence with brand-name pills, resulting in the same safety and effectiveness, are the true benefits and undisputable advantages.

Before making a final decision just be sure to check weather the generic medication, you are thinking about, is legally authorized in your country or not (list of brand-name drugs, which have their generic alternatives, is available at the U.S. CDER site). If the generic is legal – it is absolutely OK to use it and save your money; if not – do some research of the available information on a particular generic drug and its manufacturer, and think twice before taking it…


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