Background: To the extent that outcomes are mediated through negative perceptions of generics (the nocebo effect), observational studies comparing brand-name and generic drugs are susceptible to bias favoring the brand-name drugs. We used authorized generic (AG) products, which are identical in composition and appearance to brand-name products but are marketed as generics, as a control group to address this bias in an evaluation aiming to compare the effectiveness of generic versus brand medications.
Methods and findings: For commercial health insurance enrollees from the US, administrative claims data were derived from 2 databases: (1) Optum Clinformatics Data Mart (years: 2004-2013) and (2) Truven MarketScan (years: 2003-2015). For a total of 8 drug products, the following groups were compared using a cohort study design: (1) patients switching from brand-name products to AGs versus generics, and patients initiating treatment with AGs versus generics, where AG use proxied brand-name use, addressing negative perception bias, and (2) patients initiating generic versus brand-name products (bias-prone direct comparison) and patients initiating AG versus brand-name products (negative control). Using Cox proportional hazards regression after 1:1 propensity-score matching, we compared a composite cardiovascular endpoint (for amlodipine, amlodipine-benazepril, and quinapril), non-vertebral fracture (for alendronate and calcitonin), psychiatric hospitalization rate (for sertraline and escitalopram), and insulin initiation (for glipizide) between the groups. Inverse variance meta-analytic methods were used to pool adjusted hazard ratios (HRs) for each comparison between the 2 databases. Across 8 products, 2,264,774 matched pairs of patients were included in the comparisons of AGs versus generics. A majority (12 out of 16) of the clinical endpoint estimates showed similar outcomes between AGs and generics. Among the other 4 estimates that did have significantly different outcomes, 3 suggested improved outcomes with generics and 1 favored AGs (patients switching from amlodipine brand-name: HR [95% CI] 0.92 [0.88-0.97]). The comparison between generic and brand-name initiators involved 1,313,161 matched pairs, and no differences in outcomes were noted for alendronate, calcitonin, glipizide, or quinapril. We observed a lower risk of the composite cardiovascular endpoint with generics versus brand-name products for amlodipine and amlodipine-benazepril (HR [95% CI]: 0.91 [0.84-0.99] and 0.84 [0.76-0.94], respectively). For escitalopram and sertraline, we observed higher rates of psychiatric hospitalizations with generics (HR [95% CI]: 1.05 [1.01-1.10] and 1.07 [1.01-1.14], respectively). The negative control comparisons also indicated potentially higher rates of similar magnitude with AG compared to brand-name initiation for escitalopram and sertraline (HR [95% CI]: 1.06 [0.98-1.13] and 1.11 [1.05-1.18], respectively), suggesting that the differences observed between brand and generic users in these outcomes are likely explained by either residual confounding or generic perception bias. Limitations of this study include potential residual confounding due to the unavailability of certain clinical parameters in administrative claims data and the inability to evaluate surrogate outcomes, such as immediate changes in blood pressure, upon switching from brand products to generics.
Conclusions: In this study, we observed that use of generics was associated with comparable clinical outcomes to use of brand-name products. These results could help in promoting educational interventions aimed at increasing patient and provider confidence in the ability of generic medicines to manage chronic diseases.