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What is the Difference Between Prescription Medication and Generic Medication?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Prescription medication is medication which is only made available to patients when a doctor writes orders for that particular medication to be administered. By making certain drugs available only by prescription, governments reduce the risk that these drugs will be abused or used improperly, and they ensure that doctors will be able to monitor patients while they take specific medications. There are two types of prescription medication: brand name and generic drugs. There are some key differences between these types of medications which are important to consider.

Brand name drugs are drugs which are protected by a patent. Patents are awarded to new drugs when they are released to protect the drug company from attempts to copy their drugs. While a drug is under patent, other drug companies cannot copy it and release their own version. This practice is designed to allow drug companies to recoup the expense of researching, developing, and testing new drugs, so that the pharmaceutical industry has an incentive to develop new medications.

Generic medication is medication which is considered bioequivalent to a brand name drug. For example, albuterol is a generic drug used for asthma. Patented brand name versions of this drug include Ventolin® and Proventil®. Generic albuterol inhalers are supposed to be chemically identical to brand name versions, but they typically cost much less.

Medications sold under generic labels are cheaper because drug companies did not have to invest huge amounts of money in their development, since that work was done already when the brand name version was released. These drugs have the same ingredients, dosage, recommendations, side effects, and so forth as generic drugs. They are less costly because drug companies compete on their generic pricing, instead of being able to name whatever price they please for a patent drug.

When prescription medication is dispensed, most pharmacists will use the generic version of the drug, if it is available. This saves costs for patients by ensuring that they get an effective drug at a reduction of the brand name cost. Doctors and patients who want brand name medications must ensure that prescription pads say “dispensed as written” to alert the pharmacist to the fact that the brand name has been requested.

One might reasonably ask why brand name drugs continue to sell when cheaper generic versions are available, if the two types of prescription medication are bioequivalent. The answer often lies in the differences between inactive ingredients in the drugs. In the inhaler example above, different substances might be used as propellants in the inhaler, and the change in propellant could make a difference in the patient's health. A patient with a corn allergy, for example, might not be able to use a generic albuterol inhaler because of the use of corn in some generic propellants.

Patients may also request a particular drug by name because they have seen it advertised, which is why drug companies invest huge amounts of money in branding and publicizing their drugs. Drug advertisements often say “ask for it by name” to encourage patients to specifically request the brand name, rather than a generic version. Some doctors may also have a preference for a brand name version of prescription medication.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By comfyshoes — On Dec 26, 2010

Sunny27-I know that Wal-Mart also offers prescriptions at a large discount and that is really nice because prescription medication can be expensive.

For example, a prescription for Yaz, birth control pills are $75 a month, but the generic version is only $54 a month. I always try to get the generic whenever possible.

Sometimes a doctor will give you samples that you can use. My daughter’s pediatrician gave us samples of Zyrtec which is an amazing drug for allergies.

My daughter started to break out in hives and I gave her a teaspoon and within minutes all of her hives were gone.

I will say that the drug does cause drowsiness so it is recommended to give to a child that can sleep right away. This drug is really expensive it is like $80 for a small bottle.

By Sunny27 — On Dec 24, 2010

Prescription medication is very expensive. Generic prescriptions are cheaper.

Prescription medication has advertising costs associated with it, but sometimes a pharmacy has no generic equivalent.

In this case you will have to buy the prescription medication.

I know that some medications are available without a prescription. OTC medication like Claritin really makes it easy to get medication when you are suffering from severe allergies.

Claritin has a 24 hour version that is excellent. It dries out your nose and relieves the tired feeling that you usually experience you have allergies.

Also it removes all headaches and allows you to function as though you did not have any allergies.

This product works for a full twenty four hours which is another plus. I know that some pharmacies offer a patient assistance program that help make prescription drugs more affordable. These programs are free and are usually offered to seniors or those that are financially disadvantaged.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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