You’ve no doubt seen them in the grocery store — typically drab-looking packages on the bottom shelf containing lower-priced generic versions of popular brand-name products. Some shoppers look at them with skepticism: Are they really as good? Or does cheaper just mean lower quality?

Many people have the same questions about generic prescription medications, says Dr. Niteesh K. Choudhry, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center for Healthcare Delivery Sciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Are generic drugs really the same quality, or is it better to spend more for the name-brand version?

A Canadian study published in the October 2017 issue of Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes revived discussion about the value of those lower-priced alternatives. It found that patients who took generic versions of three different blood pressure medications in the months after the generic drugs became available saw increased rates of drug-related side effects. Study authors said this might suggest performance differences between the brand-name and generic drugs.

But before you grab your wallet and shell out more for a name-brand medication, it’s important to put the findings in context. Most prior research has found little difference between generics and name-brand medicines, and there may be other factors at work in this study that could have affected the results, says Dr. Choudhry. In addition, generic medications can play an important role in reducing health care costs and improving access to care, he says.
Understanding the generic approval process

Before we get into specifics about past research and the findings of this recent study, let’s talk a little about the overall quality of generic medications, including how they are regulated and approved.

In order to get a stamp of approval from the FDA, a generic medication must be “bioequivalent” to its brand-name counterpart. This means that chemically the two must be pretty much the same, although makers are allowed 20% variation in the active ingredient from that original formula. “While the FDA does allow for up to 20% wiggle room, in reality the observed variation is much smaller, 4%,” says Dr. Choudhry.

Read more at Harvard Health News