Are generic pills trade dressed for success?

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Generic drugs should be manufactured to look exactly like their name brand counterparts, write Dr. Jeremy Greene and Dr. Aaron Kesselheim in an editorial for the New England Journal of Medicine. But under a current federal regulation known as trade dress, generics cannot be produced to resemble branded medications already on the market. Trade dress is considered a form of intellectual property and is designed to protect drug innovators brands, to prevent different medications from being mistaken for one another, and to thwart counterfeiting.

However, the authors argue, if this statute were revoked, there would be a decrease in medical errors due to a reduction in the complexity of medical regimens, as well as an increase in patient drug adherence. Similar drug appearances, they add, would also combat the physician s persistent use of, and the patient s preference for, costly brands when generic equivalents are available.

From a patient point of view, this proposition seems like a good idea, says ACSH's Dr. Gilbert Ross. It s often confusing when people switch from a brand name drug to a generic, so eliminating trade dress would ease some confusion in this regard.

Even different generic versions of the same drug can vary in appearance, which, as ACSH s Cheryl Martin points out, causes even greater confusion. Sometimes I m dispensed a different generic version of my blood pressure medication, and the pills no longer look the same, so I m not always sure I m getting the right prescription and unfortunately, some patients may not recognize this discrepancy until there s an error.

But as ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom points out, It is still possible to identify a generic pill. They all have a number stamped on them. If you Google pill 1234, for instance, it will tell you what you have.