Brand-name prescription drugs, generics and biosimilars

What's the difference?

Today there are more than 10,000 prescription medicines (often abbreviated as Rx medicines or simply Rx) on the market for thousands of health conditions, and that number continues to grow each year. It is important to understand what prescription medicines are, how they differ from over-the-counter medicines, and how to take them safely and appropriately. Prescription medicines:

  • Require a prescription from a doctor, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, dentist or other healthcare professional (in contrast to over-the-counter medicines, which do not require a prescription and can bought off-the-shelf in pharmacies, grocery and convenience stores. stores)
  • Can only be dispensed by a licensed retail or online pharmacy  (see the FDA’s consumer safety guide for safely buying medicines online)
  • Are prescribed for and intended to be used by only one person

Generic and brand name medicines

In general, prescription medications are either referred to under their “brand name”  (i.e., “Lipitor®”) and/or their generic name (i.e., “atorvastatin”).

  • Brand names of medicines are set by the medicine’s manufacturer.
  • Generic drug names are usually a shortened version of the drug’s scientific chemical name. While the generic name may be harder to pronounce or remember, generic medicines are comparable in their efficacy and safety to the branded product equivalent (“reference product”. The generic version of a drug becomes available after the original brand-name manufacturer’s product goes off patent. Generic drugs are copies of brand-name drugs and are the same as those brand name drugs in dosage form, safety, strength, route of administration, quality, performance characteristics and intended use. The color or shape of a generic medicine may be different, but the active ingredient is the same. Generic drugs are required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to meet the same quality standards as brand name drugs. 
  • Biosimilars are “generic” versions of biologic medicines such as vaccines and monoclonal antibodies and therapeutic proteins. Biologics are unique in that they are composed of sugars, proteins, or nucleic acids or complex combinations of these substances, or may be living entities such as cells and tissues. Biological products are among the medications used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis and various forms of cancer. Biosimilars are unlike generics in that they don’t follow the same “recipe” as their reference products so are not exact replicas. Like generics, however, they undergo rigorous evaluation for safety and effectiveness.
  • When it comes to price, however, there is often a big difference between generic and brand name drugs. On average, the cost of a generic drug is 80 to 85 percent lower than the brand name product. Generics more likely to be covered by your health plan for a lower co-payment than branded medications. Biosimilars are new in the U.S. marketplace, but are also priced lower than brand-name biologic medicines.

While not all prescription medications have a generic substitute—in fact, many newer medications don’t—asking for a generic may be a good way to save money on your prescriptions and co-pays. Many times, pharmacies fill prescriptions with the generic as the default, unless a prescribing healthcare provider specifically requests no generic substitution.