Now that we understand what “generic” means in the Indian context, lets look at whether we have any historical evidence of these “generic” medicines actually saving us money. The only studies that I know of are from public sector entities, the Central Government Health Scheme, the Indian Army and the Indian Railways. I have written extensively about these reports in my past blogs.

Anecdotally, yes, the price we pay at the pharmacist for a generic prescription is often lower than its comparable promoted brand. The reason is simple. There are costs to promote a product. You need people who go to clinics to extoll the virtues of your product, television and paper advertisements, goodies to the practitioners to induce them to write a prescription and so on. And those costs get added to the product price which we end up paying at the counter. So in principle, yes, for that transaction, as a consumer, I pay less than what I would if I chose a “promoted” branded drug.

Now lets look at what these public sector organizations, which supposedly were tasked to procure “generic” drugs for the benefit of their membership found.

For samples which were tested from the Armed Forces Medical Stores Depot (AMFS), the CAG report notes that the rate of rejection for locally procured medicine, due to samples failing quality tests, increased from 15% to 31% during 2006-07 to 2010-11. The average rate of rejection during the three year period of 2008-09 to 2010-11 was therefore 24% approximately. This means that one in every four drugs dispensed by these organizations is not of standard quality.

In its report no. 28 of 2014 on the Railways Hospitals, the CAG noted that substandard drugs worth Rs. 21.45 lakh were supplied to 20 hospitals over 8 different zones of the railways. As noted by PAC Committee in its report between 2009-2012, CGHS, Bombay had reported Rs. 28.45 lakhs worth of drugs as sub-standard. Of these medicines, stock worth Rs. 15.66 lakhs had already been issued to patients.

And then there is the experiment we call Jan Aushadi stores (JAS). Factly reports that one half of these stores have no stock to sell. Other than Rajasthan, this has been an abject failure as the graphic on the Factly website shows. A recent study by the Center for Health Policy at the Tata Institutes of Social Sciences said “From the policy perspective, it raises serious questions regarding the pricing of medicines in JAS and the goal to be achieved. With information asymmetry and supplier induced demand feature in the healthcare market, the OOP expenditure due to medicines is unlikely to decline in India with the existing JAS.”

I will not go into the reasons why Non-Standard Quality medicines are harmful. My past blogs explain this in great detail. Suffice to say that focussing just on the price that we pay at the counter is not very productive. There are larger, systemic issues that need to be fixed first.

When was the last time you went to a doctor and asked him to write a prescription for the cheapest drug? I have asked this question of many who I know and I got no positive answers. Instead, I got weird looks! Although my unscientific survey did not include someone who makes 500 rupees a day, I venture to guess that even he would ask the doctor to give him the “best” medicine, not the cheapest.

The best anecdote I read was from a critical-care physician in Mumbai. The most expensive drug she said, and I whole heartedly agree is the one that does not work. And NSQ drugs certainly do not work.

What does this tell us?

It doesnt matter how inexpensive a particular transaction is, without a view on the long term outcome, discussing affordability is moot. We just simply do not have the data to make well-reasoned conclusions that mandating “generic” prescriptions actually helps lower the cost of care.  In such a scenario, why do we spend so much time debating an issue which clearly is not properly defined ? This is a pointless discussion. Yes, it will rile up people on the television and create drama, but will it help us achieve the objective we have set for ourselves?

The only source of scientific evidence of what cheap, poor quality medicines do to public health is in the treatment of malaria, a disease that is endemic to our country as well. For a long time, scholars have studied the effect of substandard, counterfeit drugs that are so prevalent in the supply chain that treats this disease. The evidence unequivocal. Poor quality drugs cause (a) economic sabotage; (b) therapeutic failure; (c) increased risk of the emergence and spread of resistant strains of Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax; (d) an undermining of trust/confidence in healthcare stakeholders/systems; and, (e) serious side effects or death. I am sure you agree that the cumulative cost of handling these outcomes is much larger to us as a country than the cost of the transaction at the pharmacy counter.

Good governance means not making policy based on anecdotes and emotive issues; rather, using actual data to formulate policy and define criteria to measure its effectiveness once implemented. I hope our Niti Ayog is listening.