Are branded medications better than unbranded?

A range of tablets and pills in their packaging

My friend says branded medications are better than unbranded ones, but I think generic versions are the same. Who is right?

Senior Cardiac Nurse Emily Reeve says:

Medicines often have more than one name – a generic name (which is the active ingredient of the medicine) and a brand name. The brand name is chosen by the manufacturer to help with marketing. For example, Lipitor is the brand name given by Pfizer to the generic medicine atorvastatin. 

When a pharmaceutical company discovers a new drug, they take out a patent so no-one else can make the drug for a period of time. This allows them to recoup money spent on development and testing. Once that patent expires, other companies can sell the drug under its generic name, usually more cheaply. The unbranded drug has to be identical in its active ingredient, strength, safety and the way it is taken. 

These differences are rarely significant, which is why generic and branded medicines are almost always interchangeable

Medicines also contain inactive ingredients, which are used to formulate the active ingredient into a tablet, liquid or cream, and these can vary. This is why medicines containing the same active ingredient, but made by different manufacturers, may look different. These differences are rarely significant, which is why generic and branded medicines are almost always interchangeable. 

There are a few exceptions. Some slow-release medications may be absorbed by the body differently – this can include slow-release versions of calcium channel blockers like diltiazem, veraprimil and nifedipine. Ciclosporin (an immunosuppressant), lithium (for mental health conditions) and epilepsy medications are also examples where different brands may be absorbed differently by the body, so may have a different effect. 

Tell your doctor if you have a preference for a version of a medicine, for example, if you find that size and shape of tablet easier to swallow. 

Senior Cardiac Nurse Emily Reeve

Meet the expert

Senior Cardiac Nurse Emily Reeve has worked in general and cardiology nursing with a background in cardiac rehab.

More useful information