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Concern over generic drugs

THE nation’s pharmacists have been urged to come clean about the sale of generic medicines, amid concern they can cause confusion and are not always a cheaper alternative.

New research shows it is now commonplace for Australians to be asked, at the pharmacy counter, if they want a generic version of the brand-name drug their doctor has prescribed.

Nine out of 10 respondents to a Galaxy Poll said they had been offered a generic alternative within the past two years, and more than half (55 per cent) said they did not ask about price before accepting the offer.

Melbourne-based pharmacist Gerald Quigley said that although there was a view that generics were always “a better deal”, sometimes they were no cheaper than a popular branded rival.

Generics also introduced new risks when given to vulnerable members of the community, he said, particularly elderly people who need to take an array of pills every day.

“When your yellow-and-green capsule suddenly becomes a blue-and-red capsule, it is amazing how many older people say: `I can’t remember taking that before, and I just won’t take it’,” Mr Quigley said.

“… There needs to be a lot more discussion about this to make sure that patients get what they expect and what they trust.”

Drug companies can produce a generic version of a popular medicine – containing the same active compounds but different in appearance – once the patent held by its original maker has expired.

The poll of more than 500 Australian adults, commissioned by drug company Nycomed Australia and released today, found that 42 per cent of people now accept the offer of a generic “every time” while 32 per cent did so “most times”.

One in five (21 per cent) worried that taking a generic drug could lead them to receiving the wrong medicine, while eight per cent said they never accepted the offer of a generic.

Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president Kos Sclavos said the poll results contained some positive news, and that it was competition between the generic and branded drug manufacturers that put downward pressure on prices.

“From the Government’s point of view, where there is a generic they can force the price down … That’s one of the reasons why medicines are becoming more affordable,” Mr Sclavos said.

“And, from a pensioner point of view, every cent makes a difference.”

Generics have been available in Australia since the early 1990s but, Mr Sclavos said, sale volumes had remained low compared with other countries, such as the UK.

There were only a “half a dozen” cases where the generic and branded versions of a drug were the same price, he said. In most cases, the saving was 20 to 30 cents, but could be as high as $20.

“I’m actually pleased with the (poll) research because it shows our pharmacists are doing the right thing … Five or six years ago we were in trouble for not doing that,” Mr Sclavos said of the now commonplace offer of a generic.

“Obviously, there is still more work to do in terms of patients getting confused about it, and that’s something we’ll take on board and act upon.”

He said many pharmacies offered pill packaging services to help elderly patients take their array of daily medications correctly.

The Federal Government has committed $10 million for a public awareness campaign to address confusion surrounding generic drugs.


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