Generic Drugs

Reporter: Helen Wellings

You might have seen the advertisements on TV reassuring us that generic medicines are an "equal choice". But are they exactly the same as the familiar brand names - are we putting ourselves at risk by changing to a generic brand?

Dozens of our most popular prescription drugs are being sold under other names, in some cases a host of other names - adding to our booming generics market. 28% of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme market in Australia is GENERIC drugs, - 80% of them are manufactured in Australia. But are they as effective and as safe as original brand name medicines? How do they compare in quality and price?

The lmb Lstte McKinnonatest advertising blitz and information sessions being conducted around Australia, are designed to make us trust generics, to think about choosing a generic brand over the original brand medicine .. or maybe switch if we've been taking a brand name drug. But that's proving to be a major challenge.

In Australia, once the patent for a medicine expires, usually after it's been available for around 15 years, the manufacturer as well as other pharmaceutical companies are allowed to produce copies with the same active ingredients. Just like the original prescription BRAND medicines, the prescription GENERICS brands may also be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. So how similar are they?

"The most important message for consumers is that prescription medicines that are available on the pharmaceutical benefits scheme in Australia are an equal choice because they actually are equivalent." Judith Mackson from the National Prescribing Service, an organisation that provides information about medicines, says prescription generics must be what's called "bioequivalent" - they can only vary from the originator brand by a maximum 10% in the effect that they have in the body.

"The system is quite rigorous. The manufacturer will have to demonstrate that the testing has been done to show that that particular medicine will have the same effect when it is absorbed" adds Judith.

Up to 10% variation in the drug's effect is fine for most medicines, but there are important exceptions, like drugs for blood-clotting disorders, where a consistent exact dosage is vital.

"Critical dose medicines, where it is recommended that we do not switch, the patient does not switch between one brand and another between prescriptions being filled. They should stay on the same brand, whether that be the original brand or the generic medicine" explains Judith.

The main appeal of generics is the price. Most prescription generics are cheaper, on average a $3 saving per prescription. Peptic ulcer drug, Losec or Prilosec's generic, Acimax is $2.75 cheaper. Heart tablet, Tenormin, on its generic, Noten - save $3.55. Sleeping pill, Normison, save $1.77 if you buy Temaze instead.

"If it is a short term antibiotic alot of people will say I'll have the cheaper brand, whereas for chronic conditions especially in the elderly, alot will stick to the brand they know best." Dr John Gulotta of the Australian Medical Association says if it's not suitable to switch the patient's brand, the doctor can tick a box on the prescription - then the pharmacist is not legally allowed to substitute it for a generic.

"If a patient wants to stick to the same brand then they should talk to the doctor and make sure that box is ticked, alot of them get the first experience when they go to the pharmacy and the pharmacist substitutes it without even consulting in some cases, so its very important to discuss it with the patient" adds Dr Gulotta.

Generics may come in different shapes, colours and packaging. To save confusion about exactly what you're taking, here's good tip, know your medicine's chemical name, not just the brand name. And get a Medicines' List from your pharmacist or doctor.

"This chart allows them to record the actual names of the medicines they are taking, the time of day they are taking those medicines and any special instructions and for people using generic medicines, using the medicines list allows them to record the active ingredient name of the medicine" says Judith.

If you have problems taking your medicines, contact your doctor, or pharmacist, or ring the Medicines' Line on 1300 888 763, 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday - they're set up to help you.