Would prescriptions in generic names be made a must in India?
Yes, that’s what Prime Minister Modi distinctly hinted at on April 17, 2017, during the inauguration function of a charitable hospital in Surat. To facilitate this process, his government may bring in a legal framework under which doctors will have to prescribe generic medicines, the PM assured without any ambiguity whatsoever.
“In our country doctors are less, hospitals are less and medicines are expensive. If one person falls ill in a middle-class family, then the financial health of the family gets wrecked. He cannot buy a house, cannot conduct the marriage of a daughter,” he reiterated.
“It is the government’s responsibility that everybody should get health services at a minimal price,” the Prime Minister further reinforced, as he referred to the National Health Policy 2017. His clear assurance on this much-debated issue is indeed music to many ears.
Some eyebrows have already been raised on this decision of the Prime Minister, which primarily include the pharma industry, and its traditional torch bearers. Understandably, a distinct echo of the same one can also be sensed in some English business dailies. Keeping aside these expected naysayers, in this article, after giving a brief backdrop on the subject, I shall argue for the relevance of this critical issue, in today’s perspective.
Anything wrong with generic drugs sans brand names?
At the very outset, let me submit, there aren’t enough credible data to claim so. On the contrary, there are enough reports vindicating that generic drugs without brand names are generally as good as their branded equivalents. For example, a 2017 study on this subject and also in the Indian context reported, ‘93 percent of generic and 87 percent branded drug users believed that their drugs were effective in controlling their ailments.’
Thus, in my view, all generic medicines without any brand names, approved by the drug regulatory authorities can’t be inferred as inferior to equivalent branded generics – formulated with the same molecules, in the same strength and in the same dosage form; and vice versa. Both these varieties have undergone similar efficacy, safety and quality checks, if either of these are not spurious. There isn’t enough evidence either that more of generic drugs sans brand names are spurious.
However, turning the point that generic drugs without brand name cost much less to patients than their branded generic equivalents on its head, an ongoing concerted effort of vested interests is systematically trying to malign the minds of many, projecting that those cheaper drugs are inferior in quality. Many medical practitioners are also not excluded from nurturing this possible spoon-fed and make-believe perception, including a section of the media. This reminds me of the famous quote of Joseph Goebbels – the German politician and Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany till 1945: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
The lower prices of generic drugs without brand names are primarily because their manufacturers don’t need to incur huge expenditure towards marketing and sales promotion, including contentious activities, such as, so called ‘Continuing Medical Education (CME)’ for the doctors in exotic locales, and several others of its ilk.
Thus, Prime Minister Modi’s concern, I reckon, is genuine to the core. If any doctor prescribes an expensive branded generic medicine, the concerned patient should have the legal option available to ask the retailer for its substitution with a less expensive generic or even any other branded generic equivalent, which is supposed to work just as well as the prescribed branded generic. For this drug prescriptions in INN is critical.
Provide Unique Identification Code to all drug manufacturers:
When in India, we can have a digitally coded unique identification number, issued by the Government for every individual resident, in the form of ‘Aadhaar’, why can’t each drug manufacturer be also provided with a similar digitally coded number for their easy traceability and also to decipher the trail of manufacturing and sales transactions. If it’s not possible, any other effective digital ‘track and trace’ mechanism for all drugs would help bringing the wrongdoers, including those manufacturing and selling spurious and substandard drugs to justice, sooner. In case a GST system can help ferret out these details, then nothing else in this regard may probably be necessary.
In India, ‘Out of Pocket (OoP) expenditure’ as a percentage of total health care expenses being around 70 percent, is one of the highest in the world. A study by the World Bank conducted in May 2001 titled, “India – Raising the Sights: Better Health Systems for India’s Poor” indicates that out-of-pocket medical costs alone may push 2.2 percent of the population below the poverty line in one year. This situation hasn’t improved much even today, as the Prime Minister said.
Although, ‘prescribe drugs by generic names’ initiative was reported in July 2015, in the current context, I shall focus only on the recent past. Just in the last year, several initiatives were taken by the current Government to help patients reduce the OoP expenses on medicines, which constitute over 60 percent of around 70 percent of the total treatment cost. Regrettably, none of these steps have been working effectively. I shall cite hereunder, just three examples:
- On February 29, 2016, during the Union Budget presentation for the financial year 2016-17 before the Parliament, the Finance Minister announced the launch of ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan-Aushadhi Yojana (PMJAY)’ to open 3,000 Stores under PMJAY during 2016-17.
- On August 04, 2016, it was widely reported that a new digital initiative of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), named, “Search Medicine Price”, would be launched on August 29, 2016. According to NPPA, “Consumers can use the app before paying for a medicine to ensure that they get the right price.”
- In October 2016, a circular of the Medical Council of India (MCI), clearly directed the medical practitioners that: “Every physician should prescribe drugs with generic names legibly and preferably in capital letters and he/she shall ensure that there is a rational prescription and use of drugs”
A critical hurdle to overcome:
Besides, stark inefficiency of the MCI to implement its own directive for generic prescriptions, there is a key legal hurdle too, as I see it.
For example, in the current situation, the only way the JAS can sell more of essential generic drugs for greater patient access, is by allowing the store pharmacists substituting high price branded generics with their exact generic equivalents available in the JAS. However, such substitution would be grossly illegal in India, because the section 65 (11) (c) in the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945 states as follows:
“At the time of dispensing there must be noted on the prescription above the signature of the prescriber the name and address of the seller and the date on which the prescription is dispensed. 20 [(11A) No person dispensing a prescription containing substances specified in 21 [Schedule H or X] may supply any other preparation, whether containing the same substances or not in lieu thereof.]”
A move that faltered:
To address this legal issue, the Ministry of Health reportedly had submitted a proposal to the Drug Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), for consideration. In the proposal, the Health Ministry reportedly suggested an amendment of Rule 65 of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules, 1945 to enable the retail chemists substituting a branded drug formulation with its cheaper equivalent, containing the same generic ingredient, in the same strength and the dosage form, with or without a brand name.
However, in the 71st meeting of the DTAB held on May 13, 2016, its members reportedly turned down that proposal of the ministry. DTAB apparently felt that given the structure of the Indian retail pharmaceutical market, the practical impact of this recommendation may be limited.
The focus should now move beyond affordability:
In my view, the Government focus now should move beyond just drug affordability, because affordability is a highly relative yardstick. What is affordable to an average middle class population may not be affordable to the rest of the population above the poverty line. Similarly, below the poverty line population may not be able to afford perhaps any cost towards medicines or health care, in general.
Moreover, affordability will have no meaning, if one does not have even easy access to medicines. Thus, in my view, there are five key factors, which could ensure smooth access to medicines to the common man, across the country; affordable price being one of these factors:
1. A robust healthcare infrastructure
2. Affordable health care costs, including, doctors’ fees, drugs and diagnostics
3. Rational selection and usage of drugs by all concerned
4. Availability of health care financing system like, health insurance
5. Efficient logistics and supply chain support throughout the country
In this scenario, just putting in place a legal framework for drug prescription in generic names, as the Prime Minister has articulated, may bring some temporary relief, but won’t be a long-term solution for public health care needs. There arises a crying need to put in place an appropriate Universal Health Care (UHC) model in India, soon, as detailed in the National Health Policy 2017.
Brand names aren’t going to disappear:
Prime Minister Modi’s assertion to bring in a legal framework under which doctors will have to prescribe generic medicines, probably will also legally empower the retailers for substitution of high priced branded generics with low priced generic or branded generic equivalents.
This promise of the Prime Minister, when fulfilled, will facilitate making a larger quantum of lower price and high quality generic drugs available to patients, improving overall access to essential medicines. Hopefully, similar substitution will be authorized not just for the JAS outlets, but by all retail drug stores, as well.
Brand names for generic drugs will continue to exist, but with much lesser relevance. the Drugs & Cosmetic Rules of India has already made it mandatory to mention the ‘generic names or INN’ of Drugs on all packing labels in a more conspicuous manner than the trade (brand) name, if any. Hence, if a doctor prescribes in generic names, it will be easier for all retail pharmacists and even the patients, to choose cheaper alternatives from different available price-bands.
Possible changes in the sales and marketing strategies:
If it really happens, the strategic marketing focus should shift – from primarily product-brand marketing and stakeholders’ engagement for the same, to intensive corporate-brand marketing with more intense stakeholder engagement strategies, for better top of mind recall as a patient friendly and caring corporation.
Similarly, the sales promotion strategy for branded generics would possibly shift from – primarily the doctors to also the top retailers. It won’t be unlikely to know that the major retailers are participating in pharma company sponsored ‘Continuing Pharmacy Education (CPE)’ in similar or even more exotic places than the doctor!
There are many more.
There are enough international examples on what Prime Minister Modi has since proposed in his speech on this issue. All these are working quite well. To illustrate the point with a few examples, I shall underscore that prescribing in generic name or in other words “International Nonproprietary Name (INN)’ is permitted in two-thirds of OECD countries like the United States, and is mandatory in several other nations, such as, France, Spain, Portugal and Estonia. Similarly, pharmacists can legally substitute brand-name drugs with generic equivalents in most OECD countries, while such substitution has been mandatory in countries, such as, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Sweden, Italy. Further, in several different countries, pharmacists have also the obligation to inform patients about the availability of a cheaper alternative.
However, the naysayers would continue saying: ‘But India is different.’
Impact on the pharma industry:
The March 2017 report of ‘India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF)’ states that Indian pharmaceutical sector accounts for about 2.4 per cent of the global pharmaceutical industry in value terms, 10 per cent in volume terms and is expected to expand at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 15.92 per cent to US$ 55 billion by 2020 from US$ 20 billion in 2015. With 70 per cent market share (in terms of value), generic drugs constitute its largest segment. Over the Counter (OTC) medicines and patented drugs constitute the balance 21 percent and 9 percent, respectively. Branded generics constitute around 90 percent of the generic market. In my view, if the above decision of the Prime Minister is implemented the way I deliberated here in this article, we are likely to witness perceptible changes in the market dynamics and individual company’s performance outlook. A few of my top of mind examples are as follows:
- No long-term overall adverse market impact is envisaged, as ‘the prices of 700 essential medicines have already been capped by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA). However, some short-term market adjustments are possible, because of several other factors.
- There could be a significant impact on the (brand) market shares of various companies. Some will have greater exposure and some lesser, depending on their current sales and marketing models and business outlook.
- Valuation of those companies, which had acquired mega branded generics, such as Piramal brands by Abbott Healthcare, or Ranbaxy brands by Sun pharma, may undergo considerable changes, unless timely, innovative and proactive measures are taken forthwith, as I had deliberated before in this blog.
- Together with much awaited implementation of the mandatory Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) sooner than later, the sales and marketing expenditure of the branded generic players could come down significantly, improving the bottom-line.
- Pharma marketing ballgame in this segment would undergo a metamorphosis, with brighter creative minds scoring higher, aided by the cutting-edge strategies, and digital marketing playing a much greater role than what it does today.
- A significant reduction in the number of field forces is also possible, as the sales promotion focus gets sharper on the retailers and digitally enabled patient engagement initiatives.
The above examples are just illustrative. I hasten to add that at this stage it should not be considered as any more than an educates guess. We all need to wait, and watch how these promises get translated into reality, of course, without underestimating the quiet lobbying power of the powerful pharma industry. That said, the long-term macro picture of the Indian pharma industry continues to remain as bright, if appropriate and timely strategic interventions are put well in place, as I see it.
It is an irony that despite being the 4th largest producer of pharmaceuticals, and catering to the needs of 20 percent of the global requirements for generic medicines, India is still unable to ensure access to many modern medicines to a large section of its population.
Despite this situation in India, Prime Minister Modi’s encouraging words on this issue have reportedly attracted the wrath of some section of the pharma industry, which, incidentally, he is aware of it, as evident from his speech.
Some have expressed serious concern that it would shift the decision of choosing a specific generic formulation of the same molecule for the patients from doctors to chemists. My counter question is, so what? The drug regulator of the country ensures, and has also repeatedly affirmed that there is no difference in efficacy, safety and quality profile between any approved branded generic and its generic equivalents. Moreover, by implementing an effective track and trace system for all drugs, such misgiving on spurious generic medicines, both with or without brand names, can be more effectively addressed, if not eliminated. Incidentally, reported incidences of USFDA import bans on drug quality parameters and breach of data integrity, include many large Indian branded generic manufacturers. Thus, can anyone really vouch for high drug quality even from the branded generics in India?
Further, the expensive branding exercise of essential medicines, just for commercial gain, and adversely impacting patients’ access to these drugs, has now been questioned without any ambiguity, none else than the Prime Minster of India. The generic drug manufacturers will need to quickly adapt to ‘low margin – high volume’ business models, leveraging economies of scale, and accepting the stark reality, as was expressed in an article published in Forbes – ‘the age of commodity medicines approaches’. Even otherwise, what’s wrong in the term commodity, either, especially when generic medicines have been officially and legally classified as essential commodities in India?
Overall, the clear signal from Prime Minister Modi that ‘prescriptions in generic names be made a must in India ‘, well supported by appropriate legal and regulatory mechanisms – is indeed a good beginning, while paving the way for a new era of Universal Health Care in India. God willing!
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.