Prescription medication is medication which is only made available to patients when a doctor writes orders for that particular medication to be administered. By making certain drugs available only by prescription, governments reduce the risk that these drugs will be abused or used improperly, and they ensure that doctors will be able to monitor patients while they take specific medications. There are two types of prescription medication: brand name and generic drugs. There are some key differences between these types of medications which are important to consider.
Brand name drugs are drugs which are protected by a patent. Patents are awarded to new drugs when they are released to protect the drug company from attempts to copy their drugs. While a drug is under patent, other drug companies cannot copy it and release their own version. This practice is designed to allow drug companies to recoup the expense of researching, developing, and testing new drugs, so that the pharmaceutical industry has an incentive to develop new medications.
Generic medication is medication which is considered bioequivalent to a brand name drug. For example, albuterol is a generic drug used for asthma. Patented brand name versions of this drug include Ventolin® and Proventil®. Generic albuterol inhalers are supposed to be chemically identical to brand name versions, but they typically cost much less.
Medications sold under generic labels are cheaper because drug companies did not have to invest huge amounts of money in their development, since that work was done already when the brand name version was released. These drugs have the same ingredients, dosage, recommendations, side effects, and so forth as generic drugs. They are less costly because drug companies compete on their generic pricing, instead of being able to name whatever price they please for a patent drug.
When prescription medication is dispensed, most pharmacists will use the generic version of the drug, if it is available. This saves costs for patients by ensuring that they get an effective drug at a reduction of the brand name cost. Doctors and patients who want brand name medications must ensure that prescription pads say “dispensed as written” to alert the pharmacist to the fact that the brand name has been requested.
One might reasonably ask why brand name drugs continue to sell when cheaper generic versions are available, if the two types of prescription medication are bioequivalent. The answer often lies in the differences between inactive ingredients in the drugs. In the inhaler example above, different substances might be used as propellants in the inhaler, and the change in propellant could make a difference in the patient's health. A patient with a corn allergy, for example, might not be able to use a generic albuterol inhaler because of the use of corn in some generic propellants.
Patients may also request a particular drug by name because they have seen it advertised, which is why drug companies invest huge amounts of money in branding and publicizing their drugs. Drug advertisements often say “ask for it by name” to encourage patients to specifically request the brand name, rather than a generic version. Some doctors may also have a preference for a brand name version of prescription medication.