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Generic medicines vs. brand-name medicines

When getting a prescription filled, you might have been asked whether you would prefer the generic alternative. Understanding the differences between generic and brand name medicines can help you make an informed choice.

Are generic medicines the same as brand-name medicines?

In the way they work, yes. In other ways, maybe not.

Every medicine has a brand name, which is given by the pharmaceutical company that markets the drug, and a generic name, the drug’s ‘active ingredient’ that makes it work.

When a medicine with a new active ingredient first appears, it is protected by a patent for several years. The patent is designed to allow the company to make enough profits to recover the money it spent developing the medicine, or on buying the rights to market it.

While the medicine is covered by patent, other companies cannot sell a similar medicine containing the protected active ingredient.

After the patent expires, other companies are allowed to develop medicines based on the active ingredient. These are known as ‘generic’ medicines. There may be several of them with different brand names, but the same active ingredient as the original.

Generic medicines may be different from the brand name version in:

  • shape, size and colour
  • packaging
  • 'inactive ingredients' that do not contribute to the treatment effect of the medicine.

Are generic medicines as effective and safe as brand-name medicines?

Yes. Because they contain the same active ingredient and dose, they will work in the same way.

Generic medicines can only be sold in Australia if they meet the same strict standards of quality, safety and effectiveness as the original.

Why are generic medicines often less expensive?

Generic medicines cost less than brand-name medicines because the manufacturers have not spent money on either research and development of the medicine, or buying the rights to sell it.

What to consider when offered a generic medicine

  • A generic medicine will cost you less than the original and will have the same effect as the original.
  • You may choose not to switch to avoid confusion, especially if you take several different medicines.
  • If you have allergies, you would want to check whether or not the generic medicine contains something you are allergic to.

If you have any questions about generic medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information.

Last reviewed: August 2015

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