Opting for a generic drug can give you the same benefits as branded medicines – but at a considerably lower cost. It is no secret that Kenyan consumers are paying over the odds for prescription drugs. Now people are increasingly turning to generics to try to reduce their monthly bill for medication. But what are they and do they suit everyone?

What are generics?

When a new drug is produced, it is protected by its patent for a certain number of years. Once this ceases, any drug manufacturer can produce their own equivalent, which is typically sold at a significantly lower price, given that this manufacturer hasn’t incurred all the costs associated with developing and creating the drug. These are known as generics.

Health financiers are now encouraging doctors and pharmacists to substitute a brand name drug for its generic equivalent, provided that it is included on a list published by the Ministry of Health.

So, for example, if you take a branded medication that has been approved for generic substitution, your doctor or pharmacist will automatically make the switch.  Doing so will reduce the cost to the patient.

However, the only time a pharmacist can offer you a branded drug is if the doctor prescribing the medication writes “do not substitute” on the prescription.

The legislation is very clear that the prescribing doctor must write it in their own handwriting where it is deemed there is a clinical exemption.  This means that in certain circumstances – such as those outlined below – a patient can continue to use the branded medication under their existing scheme.

If, however, they opt to stick with the branded drug simply because they are familiar with it and fear change, they may have to pay the difference themselves.

But are generics always equivalent?

Typically, there is no risk to a patient in switching from a brand name drug to its generic equivalent. However, there may be exceptions.

Although generic drugs have the same active ingredient as branded drugs, they are composed differently. This means that they may have different bioavailability from either the branded drug or, indeed, other generic drugs of the same class.  Typically, this won’t affect the patient in terms of efficacy and safety, but in drugs with a narrow therapeutic index, this could potentially lead to adverse effects.

It is therefore important to use generic drugs as substitutes only if they have been shown to have similar bioavailability to the branded drug and have been approved for use in Kenya.

Therapeutic efficacy

Prescribers need to be cognisant of theoretical changes in therapeutic efficacy and monitor for any changes.  For example, the colour of the tablet may change which can lead to confusion and may lead to poor compliance.

Prescribers should again ensure patients are aware and understand the changes being made to their medication. In any case, if you’re in doubt about the suitability of generic medication, check with your GP or whoever prescribes your medication for reassurance, or call into your local pharmacist.

Looking for low-cost generics

Generic alternatives too many drugs should be available in your local pharmacy so you can always ask for the generic substitution for any medication you may be taking.

If the drug is still under patent it won’t be available, or it may turn out to be unsuitable for your needs, but it’s still worth asking about.