Better, Same or Worse—Comparing Branded and Generic Pharmaceuticals

When shopping for medication, it can seem like a tough choice between quality and budget. While branded medications appear to have the track record and the pull of a large marketing budget, generic medications are typically more affordable.

Typically, when people talk about generic pharmaceuticals, they're referring to any branded or unbranded version of the medication that isn't produced by the company that initially researched it. This can get a little confusing because when discussing other products, the term 'generic' usually means only the unbranded versions.

So are they as good? In many countries, including Australia, in order for a medication to be sold, it must be proven to be as effective as the non-generic version of that medication. This is called "bioequivalence," and it ensures that the makeup of two medications is similar enough that the effects (and side effects) of that medication are essentially identical. In order for a generic medication to be sold in Australia, it must have been found to have identical or near-identical efficacy in treating the illness as the branded product. According to an article in Australian Prescriber, many generic brands are not only nearly identical to each other but are literally the same, being produced in the same factories. While the branded products are likely to come from other places, the article points out that some of the confusion around generic brands may be caused by this recent 'proliferation in the number of "generic" brands' produced by a single company.

It's worth mentioning that the above standards may be different than the standards for other over-the-counter consumer healthcare products. For example, branded hair care products may be significantly different from generic or unbranded products in their effectiveness and in their production. Over-the-counter versions of medications may not be as strong or may carry different side effects. For example, a doctor will be able to prescribe stronger pain medication than that offered over-the-counter. Not only will the strength be different, but the formulation may be entirely different as well.

Whenever you're buying any healthcare product, it's important to make sure that you are aware of what you're using, whether it is a generic product or a branded one. But in most cases, especially when considering prescription medication, the difference between branded and generic is not likely to be significant and should not have any impact on how well the medication works. Carefully reading any safety documentation that comes with the medication will help you to make informed decisions about whether that medication is right for you.