June 4th, 2009
11:14 AM ET

Are generic drugs equal to brand name products?

As a new feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Don, New Berlin, New York

“I am curious to know the differences between generic and name-brand drugs. What makes the prices so different? Is there a difference in quality?”


Hey Don! As you accurately observed, the main difference between generics and brand-name drugs is the cost. Generics cost less than a third as much as their brand-name counterparts. Why the price difference? Because makers of brand-name drugs want to "brand" their identity - and the way to do that is through advertising. These companies pay large amounts of money to catch your attention, and that money factors into the cost you pay.

As far as how they compare in quality, here's the scoop: The active ingredients - the things that make the brand-name drug work in the first place - are also found in the generic version. What might be different are the generic drug's inactive ingredients - things that might affect how quickly a drug is released, the size and shape of the pill - there could be variation there.

There has been some anecdotal evidence suggesting some types of drugs may react significantly differently between the generic and brand. However, according to the FDA, they all undergo and meet the same strict regulations for safety and efficacy. Still, some docs may not want to risk even the small chance that a generic will react differently from the brand, so you need to have that conversation with your doctor to figure out what’s best for you.

If you do switch to a generic and notice you’re reacting differently, there are things you can do. You can try a different generic; there are often several versions of the same generic drug, like a two-tablet version of the same medication, instead of one. You can also have your doctor write "Dispense as Written" or "Do Not Substitute" on your prescription so that you can stay on the brand name, but you may end up paying more.

But remember, with most generics, you’re probably not going to see any difference at all, except you might find a bit more cash in your wallet.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.