The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Body and Soul - - Health -

In the cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate, nearly all of us are looking for ways to tighten our belts. But how many of us are looking in our medicine cab­i­nets to save money? Swap­ping brand-name medicines for generic al­ter­na­tives can add hun­dreds of dol­lars a year to your bank bal­ance. And there is no com­pro­mise in qual­ity, ac­cord­ing to con­sumer watch­dog Choice. But most of us re­main loyal to brands we know, es­pe­cially when it comes to health care.

Aus­tralia has one of the low­est user rates of generic medicines in the world, Mel­bourne’s Deakin Uni­ver­sity has found, at 18 per cent of pre­scrip­tions com­pared to 50 per cent in the US and 70 per cent in Den­mark.

Generic drugs are strin­gently tested and must be proven to be “bio-equiv­a­lent” to the orig­i­nal brand to get ap­proved by the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment. This means they have the same ac­tive in­gre­di­ents and can be ex­pected to work just as quickly and ef­fec­tively as their branded coun­ter­part.

“We would en­cour­age peo­ple to ex­plore the world of gener­ics be­cause they are just as good and can save you sig­nif­i­cant amounts of money,” Choice spokesman Christo­pher Zinn says.


Gener­ics of­ten cost less be­cause they are de­vel­oped by ri­val man­u­fac­tur­ers once a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany’s patent on the orig­i­nal drug runs out. This patent, usu­ally last­ing 10 to 20 years, al­lows the first com­pany to re­coup the sig­nif­i­cant costs of re­search­ing, test­ing and de­vel­op­ing a new medicine.

Once it ex­pires, the com­pany no longer has exclusive rights to man­u­fac­ture and sell the drug, al­low­ing oth­ers to pro­duce cheaper copies us­ing the same in­gre­di­ents.

The price gap be­tween th­ese prod­ucts can range from a few cents to as much as $ 80 per pre­scrip­tion. This is be­cause the orig­i­nal drug may have a “brand pre­mium” in­cor­po­rated into its price tag, at an av­er­age of about $ 3.

“There needs to be a bit of a sales job when it comes to gener­ics,” Zinn says. “Peo­ple are so wed­ded to brands that they think they must be best when it comes to health.”

The only dif­fer­ences be­tween a generic drug and a brand-name ver­sion are their ap­pear­ance, packaging and in­ac­tive in­gre­di­ents, such as fillers, binders or colour­ing. Pa­tients with al­ler­gies to such in­gre­di­ents should check be­fore mak­ing the switch.

When a drug be­comes el­i­gi­ble for sub­sidy un­der the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Ben­e­fits Scheme ( PBS), the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment will only cover the cost of the low­est-priced ver­sion, leav­ing con­sumers to pay the dif­fer­ence on a branded ver­sion.

The Na­tional Pre­scrib­ing Ser­vice ( NPS), an in­de­pen­dent, non-profit medicine in­for­ma­tion ser­vice, is at­tempt­ing to boost aware­ness of gener­ics through its Generic Medicines are an Equal Choice cam­paign.

“More than 100 brand medicines will come off patent in the next 10 years, so by re­duc­ing the cost of the PBS, it will en­sure Aus­tralians con­tinue to have ac­cess to new medicines at an af­ford­able price,” Dr Lynn Weekes, NPS CEO, says.

Even if there is lit­tle or no price dif­fer­ence at the phar­macy, choos­ing gener­ics still saves the health sys­tem money in sub­si­dies. Oneof

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“By help­ing to re­duce the cost to the gov­ern­ment, Aus­tralians are play­ing a part in en­sur­ing the PBS is sus­tain­able,” Dr Weekes says.

Part of the rea­son Aus­tralians don’t use generic medicines as much as the rest of the world is be­cause the gov­ern­ment has tra­di­tion­ally min­imised the cost of new drugs un­der the PBS and there have been lit­tle cost sav­ings. Pub­lic un­der­stand­ing of gener­ics is also low.

But it’s not just pa­tients who have been con­di­tioned to buy branded medicines; doc­tors of­ten pre­scribe by names rather than ac­tive in­gre­di­ents. Nei­ther is it in every­one’s in­ter­est for gener­ics to take a larger share of the mar­ket.

“You can be sure all the drug [ com­pany] reps that go round to doc­tors aren’t say­ing, ‘Make sure peo­ple buy gener­ics’,” Zinn says.

Con­sumers can still save money by choos­ing generic over-the-counter medicines. Hand­bag sta­ples such as Nuro­fen and Panadol have a plethora of cheaper sub­sti­tutes, com­monly named by their ac­tive in­gre­di­ents ibupro­fen and parac­eta­mol. Ask if your phar­ma­cist can of­fer cheaper gener­ics.

The on­line NPS Medicine Name Finder was re­cently launched to help con­sumers find out the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in their pre­scrip­tion medicines. There are very few medicines that shouldn’t be sub­sti­tuted with a generic.

De­mand for generic medicines is ex­pected to rise fur­ther as pres­sure on our wal­lets in­creases. “If times are hard and peo­ple are pre­sented with the cold, hard facts – you can buy some­thing that is ex­actly the same as some­thing else – why wouldn’t you buy it?” Zinn says.

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