Kick the brand name habit

With everything, everywhere seemingly “breaking bad,” let’s look at an economic-educational-health bright spot: Generic drugs. A new study shows that in 2012, the use of generic medications jumped 8 percent; while the use of name-brand prescription medications dropped by 20.7 percent in the same period, USA Today reported.

The change likely reflects that several medications came off patent and were therefore available as generic medications, and it may also be a product of people on high-deductible insurance plans choosing cheaper medications, according to the Health Care Cost Institute, a non-profit group that conducted the research. The steep drop in name-brand drug use led to an overall decrease in spending on those drugs despite a 25.4 percent increase in prescription drug prices.

Using generics, and other smart moves, are not new to health care in the Northwest, and the researchers note the difference: Spending overall is highest in the Northeast and lowest in the West, while out-of-pocket spending is highest in the South and lowest in the West.

Still, some people won’t veer from their name-brand prescription or over-the-counter medication, even though their generic versions work equally well. Which illustrates the power of advertising. A study by the University of Chicago Business School about “branding effects” found that high-income households are much more likely to buy name-brand headache remedies than low-income households, Slate reported in June. This finding holds true except for doctors, nurses and pharmacists, because they know better. (Professional pharmacists, the most informed people on the subject, are the least likely of them all to buy the expensive name-brand drugs.)

In total, the study found, Americans waste about $32 billion a year in buying name-brand pills over the counter where generic alternatives are readily available. Importantly, a willingness to buy generic drugs is strongly correlated with the ability to correctly identify the active ingredient in name-brand pills, researchers said. That’s where doctors, nurses, pharmacists and insurance companies need to start, or continue, their educational efforts about generic medicine, and what to look for. (Most generics helpfully put “Compare to the ingredients in Tylenol” on their labels, for example, to make it easier for people, because the scientific names for ingredients do get confusing in a hurry.) A personal testimonial to a patient from a doctor, nurse or pharmacist that they themselves use generics is another simple but extremely powerful tool.

For good and for bad, Americans are seen as “consumers” when it comes to health care. Choice is always good, except when it’s misleading, and costly. Commercials and pharmaceutical companies are very persuasive. But they’re not the only ones motivated by money. (And own well-being.) Be smart, choose generic.

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