Issue 30 / 6 August 2012

Looking into the side effects of ophthalmic drug Lucentis (ranibizumab) last week, I was struck by how much simpler and easier it was to remember the brand name than the generic— a common experience with prescription drugs.

Lucentis uses the Latin word for light as its root; a good marketing message when you’re selling the promise of better eyesight for those with macular degeneration.

The handsomely remunerated branding experts who come up with new drug names often seem to be frustrated classicists.

Stilnox (zolpidem), the sleep medication that Australian athletes have been banned from taking at the London Olympics, harnesses the Latin word for night to promise a tranquil rest.

Similarly, antidepressants Aropax (paroxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline) exploit the Latin word for peace and the Greek word for life, respectively.

And then there’s Viagra, with its first two letters evoking both the Latin word for man (“vir”) and life (“vita”). It’s hard to see the drug’s generic name, sildenafil, catching on in the same way.

Brand consultants also rely on linguistic research to tell them which sounds and typographical combinations are likely to have the most influence over prescribers and consumers.

In the more innocent years after World War II, when branding of individual drugs first became widespread, manufacturers often went for names starting with the letter A as this would place their product early in an alphabetical listing of drugs.

More recently, we’ve seen a proliferation of drug names starting with Xs and Zs, visually striking letters that bring with them connotations of power and technological innovation.

You can increase the impact of such letters with repetition, especially if you do it palindromically, as in Xanax (alprazolam).

Given the potential bounty a cleverly marketed drug can deliver, it’s hardly surprising that industry puts so much effort into creating the right names, but the marketing strategy does have implications for those seeking to reduce health costs by encouraging more widespread prescription of generics.

Generic names — devised by the drugs’ manufacturers and then approved by the World Health Organization — are typically a whole lot more difficult to remember and spell correctly than the proprietary brand names, posing an obstacle for prescribers.

In fact, rheumatologist Dr Robert Shmerling, from the Harvard Medical School, has suggested it is in manufacturers’ interest to make generic names as unfriendly as possible.

“My own theory is that these generic names [asthma medications zafirlukast and montelukast] were chosen specifically because they are not easy to say or remember”, he writes. “That way, doctors and patients would be more likely to remember the brand names …”

A study conducted at a Canberra teaching hospital in 2006 supported the view that lengthy names do put a barrier in the way of generic prescribing.

The researchers found 53% of drugs at the hospital were prescribed by brand rather than generic names, a proportion that rose to a phenomenal 98% when the generic name had more than 15 letters.

Intriguingly, prescribers were also far more likely to opt for the brand name when this ended in X than they were with other letter combinations.

What does all this mean for those seeking to encourage prescription of generics?

Given that we have little or no chance of reining in the marketing juggernaut that is the modern pharmaceutical industry, our best hope might lie in imitation.

Although they might never achieve the marketing oomph of a Viagra, generic names could be shorter and easier to spell, pronounce and remember. And, to avoid potential conflict of interest, they could be determined at arm’s length from manufacturers.

As the authors of the Canberra study put it: “more doctors might be encouraged to prescribe generically if generic names were devised with the same principles used by marketers for devising brand names”.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 6 August 2012

2 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Memorable medication monikers

  1. Gary Reynolds says:

    What further irritates me is that the Newspaper I read almost always uses ONLY the brand name in any story about medications (e.g. ‘New cancer drug Miraclex not available on PBS’). All news outlets should as a matter of accurate public information use, e.g. ‘the drug genericium (brand name/s Fatuine, Amazium et)’ as standard routine.

  2. Rollo Manning says:

    This is interesting but, under current regulations, writing the correct generic name for a drug is not necessary. The PBS requires the prescribing doctor to put an “X” in a box if they require the original brand name dispensed which will undoubtedly carry a premium on the price. The pharmacist will dispense a generic in almost all cases unless the doctor has specified “NO”. When we read the stats the indication is that there is a small percentage of “generic” prescribing BUT that does not mean “dispensing” is not generic.
    The fault in the system is not with the prescribing doctor but with the Government for allowing pharmacies to continue to dispense products they have known not to be cheap and yet have profited largely from their incentives to stock. The lowest priced generics all the SAME PRICE. The fault is with the Government for not having the courage to reign in the super profits being made by pharmacists when dispensing generics.
    So don’t worry about the names – they stay the same and it appears no generic names are being prescribed but in fact the truth lies in the dispensing.
    As one pharmacist said recently…”Over the past 15-20 years pharmacy has enjoyed ‘super profits’ from the supply of generic drugs. The downside has ultimately come home to roost. No one ever wanted the ‘bubble’ to burst but of course it had to – eventually.” That is the truth.
    A tendering system would introduce competition into the system and force transparent competition between generic manufacturers to ensure the taxpayer benefits from lower prices and not the dispensing pharmacist. This is all the more reason why a Productivity Commission review is needed into the entire PBS to ascertain if taxpayers are getting their value from the $9 billion Commonwealth spend.

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