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Which are better: Generic or name-brand medications?

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Aged whiskey, high-speed laptops, extra-ply toilet paper--sometimes, ponying up for name brands buys higher quality. But when it comes to medications, generic drugs are like a plain white tee--the cheaper option does the same job as the one that breaks the bank.

“Generic drugs have the same active ingredients, strength, and quality as the name-brand versions,” says Dr. Michael Fischer, associate physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In fact, non-commercial meds must meet the same rigorous FDA standards as their well-promoted counterparts--differing no more than batches of big name drugs produced in separate factories, he explains. 

Click here to find out the problem with Generic Meds.

So then why did a different Brigham and Women’s study find that nearly half of doctors surveyed admitted to having negative perceptions about the quality of generic pills?

Your doc may be swayed to prefer big name brands.

Drug companies have a massive ad budget, and doctors may be pushed into believing that commercial versions are superior, says Dr. Howard Brody, director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at The University of Texas Medical Branch.

Sometimes, prescribing commercial brands is habit. When a drug is introduced, it’s under patent. For about 8 years, usually only one company has rights to market it. Docs get used to writing those scripts, explains Brody. Later, when companies apply to the FDA to market generic versions at a lower cost, doctors may continue to prescribe the name they know.

But in the years that Brody has spent in the medical practice--and in all the published data he’s aware of--he says there’s no basic difference between the two. (Do the research and get the truth about your doctor's next prognosis. 

Check out the 8 Things Your Doctor's Not Telling You.

Are there any downsides to going generic?

It’s fairly common to have a slightly different reaction to a generic and a name brand, says Dr. Brody. That’s because beyond the 5 percent of a pill that is the “active” ingredient--and required to be identical across versions--pills are packed with starch or other fillers that differ from product to product. And you can react differently to these fillers, he notes. But brand names aren’t necessarily better; it might equally be the other way around, he notes.

Similarly, your body absorbs all medicines differently--and it’s crucial that the right amount of chemicals reach your bloodstream, says Dr. Douglas Kamerow, chief scientist at RTI International, an independent research institute. For this reason, a doctor might want to stay consistent--sticking with brand-name drugs rather than switching among generics--to avoid absorption issues. While these issues are rare, they’ve happened with blood thinners and certain heart medicines, Dr. Kamerow says. 

Learn more about 3 popular medications with the craziest side effects ever.

What should you do?

It’s up to you. Research has shown generics to be just as effective--and there aren’t any commonly used drugs for which you’d need to take the brand-name version, says Dr. Fischer. “I ask for generic options for myself and for my children,” he adds.

Forgot to request the off-brand? Many pharmacies will fill a script for its off-brand equivalent if you ask. Or you can check your prescription on Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs or your insurance site, then ask your doc to phone in a generic, Dr. Fischer suggests. 

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