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What’s in a Name? Use of Brand versus Generic Drug Names in United States Outpatient Practice


The use of brand rather than generic names for medications can increase health care costs. However, little is known at a national level about how often physicians refer to drugs using their brand or generic names.


To evaluate how often physicians refer to drugs using brand or generic terminology.

Design and Participants

We used data from the 2003 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), a nationally representative survey of 25,288 community-based outpatient visits in the United States. After each visit, patient medications were recorded on a survey encounter form by the treating physician or transcribed from office notes.


Our main outcome measure was the frequency with which medications were recorded on the encounter form using their brand or generic names.


For 20 commonly used drugs, the median frequency of brand name use was 98% (interquartile range, 81–100%). Among 12 medications with no generic competition at the time of the survey, the median frequency of brand name use was 100% (range 92–100%). Among 8 medications with generic competition at the time of the survey (“multisource” drugs), the median frequency of brand name use was 79% (range 0–98%; P < .001 for difference between drugs with and without generic competition).


Physicians refer to most medications by their brand names, including drugs with generic formulations. This may lead to higher health care costs by promoting the use of brand-name products when generic alternatives are available.

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The views expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.


The authors thank Daniel Bertenthal, MPH and Saunak Sen, PhD for their assistance with data management and statistical analysis, Priya Kamat, BA for her help investigating drug approval histories, and Kirby Lee, PharmD for his careful review of the manuscript.

This work was supported by a VA Health Services Research and Development Research Career Development award (Dr. Steinman), by grants from the National Institute on Aging (AG00912) and the John A. Hartford Foundation (2003-0244) (Dr. Landefeld) and from the National Institute on Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease (AR02203) (Dr. Chren), and by support from the HSR&D Research Enhancement Award Program at the San Francisco VA Medical Center (all authors). Drs. Landefeld is a Senior Scholar in the VA National Quality Scholars Program. None of these sponsors had any role in the study design, methods, analyses, and interpretation, or in preparation of the manuscript and the decision to submit it for publication.

Author’s Contributions

Study concept and design (MAS), acquisition of subjects and data (MAS), analysis and interpretation of data (all authors), preparation of the manuscript (MAS), and critical review of the manuscript (all authors). Dr. Steinman had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.

Copyright notice

All of the authors are employees of the United States government and cannot transfer copyright rights for this manuscript to the publisher.

Potential Financial Conflicts of Interest

The authors have no financial conflicts of interest with products discussed in the manuscript.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael A. Steinman MD.

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Steinman, M.A., Chren, MM. & Landefeld, C.S. What’s in a Name? Use of Brand versus Generic Drug Names in United States Outpatient Practice. J GEN INTERN MED 22, 645–648 (2007).

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Key words

  • drug labeling
  • drug industry
  • prescriptions, drug
  • drugs, generic
  • names
  • prescription fees
  • ambulatory care