Generic drugs just as effective, study says

Providence Health Team

High out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs often keep patients from sticking with treatment. But a new study says broader use of lower-cost generic drugs could go a long way to solving this problem.

The study by the American College of Physicians looked at:

  • How often generic drugs are overlooked in favor of brand-name drugs
  • How well generic medications work
  • Whether patients are more likely to stay with their treatment plan if prescribed generic drugs
  • Barriers to increasing the use of generic drugs
  • Strategies to promote greater use of generic drugs

The findings were significant enough for the ACP’s Guidelines Committee, whose members are physicians trained in internal medicine and evaluating medical evidence, to develop best practice advice for fellow physicians and other clinicians. Their conclusion: Clinicians should prescribe generic drugs, rather than more expensive, brand-name medications as a way to help contain costs and keep patients on their treatment plans.

Leveling the field

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in November 2015, backs up earlier research on the effectiveness of generic drugs.

“This is the great leveler,” says Sean Dobbin, Pharm. D., regional pharmacy director at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington. “Prescribing generic drugs will produce better outcomes because patients are more likely to stick to their treatment plan.”

High out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs often keep patients from sticking with treatment. But a new study says broader use of lower-cost generic drugs could go a long way to solving this problem.

Higher out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions have consistently been shown to affect the length of time patients take medications – or whether they take it at all. Prescriptions for branded drugs are almost twice as likely as generics to be left untouched at the pharmacy.

Generic drugs less visible

Generic drug manufacturers have been vying for visibility and trust for decades.  However, prescribing and use of brand-name drugs, with generic alternatives, remains relatively high. Dr. Dobbin says one reason for this is that physicians get comfortable with their stable of brand-name drugs and trust the drugs’ effectiveness. Plus pharmaceutical companies provide physician offices free brand-name drug samples. Once physicians and their patients get started on a particular brand-drug, they may be reluctant to change to a generic version.

Patients may also associate the lower price of generic drugs with lower levels of effectiveness, and specifically ask their physicians for brand-name prescriptions.

There are cases where a brand-name drug is the only one available in its class or is clinically appropriate. However, most brand-name medications have two or three generic counterparts that are equally effective and safe.

Generics lower health care costs

Nearly $325 billion is spent on prescription medications in the U.S. every year.  But this number could be significantly reduced if people used generic medications.

To better understand the costs associated with brand-name versus generic drugs, the ACP study looked at Medicare patients with diabetes. The investigators found that between 23 and 45 percent of prescriptions were for brand-name drugs, even though identical generics were available. Medicare could save $1.4 billion for diabetes care alone by replacing brand-name drugs with generic versions, the study said.

Strategies for promoting generics

The study recommends some strategies to promote greater generic medication use:

  • Using electronic medical records to send notifications to physicians of a change in the generic status of a prescribed medication
  • Giving physicians free samples of generics to share with patients
  • Using public awareness and advertising campaigns similar to the ones used for brand-name drugs

Providence supports prescribing generic drugs and has been working toward standardizing their recommendations. Dr. Dobbin says that while lowering costs and keeping patients on needed medications is a primary goal, limiting side-effects and improving the health of our patients is the most important objective.

Dr. Dobbin suggests that patients explore all their options when it comes to generic drug prescriptions. “Patients should speak to their provider and pharmacist about all their drug therapy options, including the appropriate use of generics,” he says.

He also points out that pharmacists have been strong advocates on behalf of patients by contacting the prescribing provider if there is a generic drug equivalent.

“The [ACP] guidelines further validate our belief that generics are a good decision for most patients,” he says, “but the decision should be between the patient, provider and pharmacist.”

Want to learn more about switching to a generic drug prescription? Contact your provider and ask if there are options for you. 

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