Thursday, 17 January 2008

A rose by any other name....

When you do the housework do you vacuum the floor or Hoover it? If you want to make a note do you reach for a ballpoint pen or a Biro? When you scribble a prescription are you prescribing ibuprofen or Nurofen?

Some brand names just stick, they become part of the language. Perhaps with drugs the reason that happens is that brand names are snappy names for marketing, while generics often fail to trip of the tongue. When sildenafil can be marketed generically I am sure we will all still be calling it Viagra. It's easier to say, easier to spell, and the word has passed into the collective consciousness through endless acres of newsprint and hours of TV coverage.

A commons public accounts committee thinks that GPs are too ready to write a brand name instead of a generic, bumping up the cost of pills and potions handed out each year to £8.2billion. As I drove to work this morning suggestion was made on the Today programme that the true cost of prescription drugs should be printed on packets for patients to see, to help them be aware how much the NHS is paying for them. On the one hand this might stop people collecting prescription drugs and then not bothering to use them. On the other, according to the programme, some people might press their GP for pricier brands believing they are better. We're used to thinking that generally speaking a £50 bottle of Bolly is nicer than a £3.99 supermarket own brand cava, that Harrod's cashmere is softer than Matalan's. Who is going to believe that they aren't just being fobbed off with five pounds worth of cheap pills when their friend has pills that cost £40 a packet?

The issue of generic versus branded is a problem elsewhere. Organisations like Oxfam campaign for developing world countries to be able to use cheaper generic drugs to treat their citizens. Drug companies feel that they should be able to use a patent to allow them to make money from their inventions, in which they have invested heavily. They say that if this didn't happen they wouldn't be able to afford to research and develop new drugs, and we'd all suffer. In the meantime, can it be right that they charge the NHS so much during the patented period when the market is, to all intents and purposes, a monopoly.

Oddly I've not been able to find anything from the pharmaceutical companies explaining why patents are important although I note that firms such as Novartis have information on ethical marketing practices and codes of conduct. These seem to focus on the way drugs are promoted to those who will prescribe them.

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