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You may have recently received a letter from your insurance company advising you to switch to a generic drug instead of a costly name brand medication, or maybe your doctor has recommended you stay with a brand name prescription, despite a generic being widely available. You might be asking yourself, what is the difference?

First of all, a brand name drug becomes a generic drug after a brand name drug maker’s patent expires. Competitors are then allowed to apply to the Food and Drug Administration to make a generic form of the prescription without repeating the original developer’s clinical trials and other development activities that raise the cost of the prescription. This allows the new manufacturer to sell the generic drug at a substantial discount. According to the FDA, generic drugs must have the “same quality, strength, purity and stability,” as brand name drugs. A generic drug however may have different inactive ingredients such as colors or flavors.

One common misconception is that generic drugs are made in substandard or antiquated facilities. This is not true as the FDA conducts inspections of facilities to ensure their high standards are met. In fact, almost half of generic drugs are manufactured or sponsored by brand name manufactures who produce brand name and their generic counterparts.

If a generic and a brand name are the same, then why do doctors prescribe brand name prescriptions? Some patients have been switched to a generic drug and seen their symptoms come back or experienced some side effects that were not present with the brand name drug. According to a New York Times article in December of 2009, some antidepressants, heart medicine, and antiseizure medicines have been linked to patients having “symptoms returned-or even worse than before they were medicated.” One study in particular, focused on Budeprion XL a generic of Wellbutrin XL. The generic drug released the active ingredients at a different rate than the brand name drug. This may have caused different side effects and a lower effectiveness of the Budeprion dose.

For the consumer, the best practice is to ask your doctor if a generic drug is available, and if it is available then ask if it performs the same. Different doctors will have their own opinion on this topic and should definitely be consulted before you switch to a generic.