Whats in a proprietary drug name? Apparently quite a lot!

The Times, recently, carried an interesting article on ‘How drug companies try to get into your head?’ The article points out how drug companies come up with fancy sounding names which make no reference to the generic names of the drug and how these proprietary names are used by the media during the course of the reporting, thereby unwittingly advertising the proprietary name to the general public and creating an impression that these branded drugs are much more effective than relatively cheaper generic drugs. The article gives the example of some generic names like methylphenidate, sildenafil, fluoxetine, oseltamivir and trastuzumab none of which strike a chord with any of our readers (unless you’re involved in manufacturing these drugs). Perhaps the branded names of these drugs will help refresh your memory – methylphenidate is Ritalin, Sildenafil is Viagra. Fluoxetine is the antidepressant Prozac, oseltamivir is the flu drug Tamiflu, and trastuzumab is Herceptin. The most relevant Indian example that I could think up is that of Paracetamol which is more popular by its generic name – Crocin. Apparently these complicated generic names are suggested by the innovator company to fulfill WHO’s requirements regarding International Non-Proprietary Names guidelines. Allegedly the names suggested are made to sound as bland as possible so as to make it easier to market their smartly branded drugs.
The article also mentions an interesting study led by Michael Hochman, of Harvard Medical School, which found that two thirds of media articles described drugs mainly by brand name. This study argues that such usage creates the impression amongst the general public that the branded drug is THE drug and the generic alternatives are inferior. As a result even after the drug is off patent, majority of the public will continue to buy the branded drug despite the several cheaper generic alternatives. The study points out that doctors and academics prefer to use the generic names so as not to play into the hands of the drug companies and that the media should begin to do so to. The media of course has its own limitations and it is simply not possible for them to use names which do not strike a chord with their readership – for example which one of the following titles catches your attention: Viagra used to treat babies (I’m not making this one up!) or Sildenafil used to treat babies? I’m guessing the first. It is therefore no use to shoot the messenger. If we want to make sure that the generic medicines are bought by more of the general public we need to devise alternative mechanisms to tackle this information deficit so as to enable them to make the choice for themselves.

The problem is two-fold: Firstly at the level of the doctors themselves and secondly at the level of the chemists. At the level of the doctor it depends on the level of direct advertising done by innovator companies. After all doctors are human beings and continuous advertising is going to make an impact on them. Some marketing restraints should help reduce the scope of the problem. Secondly at the level of the pharmacists, since their incomes are dependant on their sales they will always have an incentive to sell a higher priced drug.

One sure-shot method to tackle the problem of an information deficit is to create something like an Orange-Book which lists the names of the branded innovator drug along with all the generic drugs so as to fulfill the information deficit faced by the ordinary consumer. One insightful commentator on the IPKat blog points out that such a system actually does exist in the U.K. Apparently the NHS made it compulsory for all doctors, nurses and pharmacists to have on their desks a copy of the British National Formulary – a publication which lists all branded and generic drugs. This does solve the information deficit only if the populace is of high literacy. What happens in countries like India where most of the rural population cannot read? One possible solution would be government authorized pharmacies which sell only generic drugs. Such a proposal was mooted by Ram Vilas Paswan some months ago. Sadly there has been no news since.

Click here for the IPkat’s post and comments.

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