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Understanding the Differences Between 7 Medication Types

If you’ve ever been diagnosed with an illness, it’s likely your doctor prescribed you a drug to help cure or treat it. Whether it’s something common like the flu or complex like heart disease, the drug may improve your quality of life – especially if you’re living with a chronic health condition. 

Prescription drugs can carry many labels, such as — brand name, generic and specialty. They are all designed to treat specific medical conditions, work in different ways or offer more affordable options. Understanding the differences of the prescription drugs available is important to making informed decisions about your health care.


What is a brand name drug?
A brand name drug is a first-to-market medication. Brand name drugs may cost consumers more due to the time, money and resources that drug companies invest in clinical trials required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Just because it carries a brand name does not necessarily mean it is more effective than other generic or similar brand name medications.

What is a generic drug?
Generic drugs deliver the same amount of active ingredient in the same timeframe as their brand-name counterparts. The FDA requires generic drugs to have the same quality, strength, purity and stability as the brand-name product. Generally, using generics can save you money and are related to brand-name medications in two ways:

  1. Generic equivalents contain the same active ingredient at the same dosage as the corresponding brand name medications.
  2. Generic alternatives within the same therapy class may be considered when generic equivalents are not yet available. 

What is the difference between a traditional drug and a specialty drug?
Traditional drugs are used to treat general health and chronic conditions, such as flu, diabetes or a common infection. Specialty drugs may be used to treat complex and rare diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Both traditional and specialty drugs can be administered as an oral medication, infusion or injectable.

What is the difference between an innovator and a biosimilar?
An innovator is a brand name specialty drug that was first-to-market for its specific active ingredient. A biosimilar is a medication that is highly similar to and has no meaningful clinical difference from an FDA-approved innovator drug. Biosimilars may be less expensive, but are not considered generic drugs because is it not possible to create an exact replica for these very complex molecules that are often made in living cells.

What is a radiopharmaceutical?
Radiopharmaceutical therapy delivers radiation to specific cells. It is administered to cancer patients and has the potential to eliminate both the primary tumor and cancer cells that may have spread throughout the body.

Less commonly, your doctor may prescribe cell or gene therapy to treat complex conditions at a genetic level. These therapies are costly, but appear to be promising.

What is cellular therapy?
Cellular therapy involves the administration of living, whole cells into a patient for the treatment of disease. The origin of the cells may be from the same person or from another person. 

What is gene therapy?
Gene therapies deliver nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) into a patient’s cells to treat a disease. The therapies modify or repair abnormal genes. This technique lets doctors treat a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery.

Talk to your doctor to better understand the differences and which treatment may be the best option for you.