This week, a group of U.S. doctors argued that the media is too complicit in the commercial practice and marketing strategy of developing and using trendy names for medications to make the brands more popular to consumers. An analysis of U.S. health news reporting conducted by Harvard Medical School, found that two-thirds of all articles reviewed had described drugs mainly by brand name, not by their actual drug names.
For instance, methylphenidate is better known by its brand name of Ritalin, the common treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); sildenafil is the generic name for the brand name Viagra; fluoxetine is the antidepressent most commonly referred to as Prozac, the flu drug Tamiflu is really oseltamivir; and trastuzumab is Herceptin, the breast cancer therapy. Despite that the generics are offered at a fraction of the price, patients and doctors tend to go for the popular brand name despite that the cheaper generics offer chemically identical counterparts providing the same results. Take for example, ibuprofen, which comes at a lower cost, versus its brand name products such as Motrin, Advil, Children’s Advil/Motrin, Medipren, Nuprin, Nurofen, PediaCare Fever or Tylenol which is really paracetamol.
The brand, or proprietary names, were all developed at great expense and are part of well-thought-out pharmaceutical company marketing plans geared to doctors and patients; doctors, so that they will prescribe brand name drugs over less expensive generics offering the same benefits and patients so that they will accept, even demand, the brands over identical rival drugs. Many argue that drug companies intentionally come up with complex generic names so that catchier, brand names are easier to use and remember, creating a product branding that ensures their product will be prescribed over other identical products once the patent period has ended and generics can be prescribed. As an example of the bias in such practices, a database search of 1,174 references to Herceptin since 2003 found that, in comparison, there were a mere 44 references to its generic name, trastuzumab.
Study leader, Michael Hochman says such reporting benefits drug companies’ and harms health funders and patients by creating the false impression that the brand is the best medicine and alternatives are inferior. This is especially problematic when a drug times out of its patent and generic versions are available at very low cost. Hochman warns that critics should save their fire for the companies that devise overcomplicated generic names, and for the regulators that allow them.
Hochman believes doctors and academics tend to use generic names when possible, to avoid being part of drug company marketing and promoting one product over another identical product; he feels media should do the same. The request may be a bit unrealistic as the public tends to understand brand names. When reading about methylphenidate or fluoxetine, readers may become lost; however, use Ritalin and Prozac and the reader understands and the brand name drugs receive another marketing boost.
Perhaps if the media began to use generic names, specifically when discussing out-of-patent medications, consumers might actually begin to understand what they are paying for and how marketing plays into their use of medications.