Harvard Health Letter

Generic or brand-name drugs?

generic drugs brand name drugs
Image: Thinkstock

Ask the doctor

Q. I would like to take generic drugs instead of brand-name drugs whenever possible, because they're cheaper. But are they really as effective?

A. First of all, generic drugs contain the exact same active ingredients as the brand-name versions. Second, in the United States, before approving a generic drug, the FDA must test it to be sure that the manufacturer has produced the same molecule, and that it achieves the same levels in the blood as the brand-name drug. Third, there have been many careful studies comparing generic drugs (once they have been approved) to their brand-name equivalents.

Almost always, the generics prove identical. But there have been a few examples in which the generic drug was not equivalent-at least until a problem in the manufacturing process was corrected. So, I can't tell you absolutely that any generic you try will always work just as well as the brand-name version—just that it almost always will. Of course, any medicine will only work if you take it. And many studies have found that people are less likely to take brand-name drugs than the generic equivalents. Presumably, this is because the brand-name drugs cost more. So some doctors argue that generic drugs actually are more likely to produce positive health effects than brand-name drugs. A committee of experts convened by the American College of Physicians has recently reviewed all of the evidence on this question, and their conclusions are like mine.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »