Medpagetoday.com reported on a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine on how “trade dress” may be endangering public health. “Trade Dress” is the term for aspects of a product’s appearance or packaging that does not impact how it functions but does set it apart from competitors. An attribute must be nonfunctional, must lead to confusion if imitated, and must have a secondary association with the product for the consumer to be considered trade dress.
Current federal trade dress regulations protect the unique appearance of brand-name drugs. However, new research indicates the legally mandated different look of a generic drug can lead to medication errors. Since each generic form of a medication must look different from the brand-name, it can be difficult to distinguish what drug is what. This could potentially lead to
pharmacy mistakes in both hospital pharmacies and retail pharmacies
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For example, a patient needs a prescription filled for Drug A to treat high blood pressure and asks for the generic version. Drug B is a medication used to treat low blood pressure and Drug C is the generic version of that low blood pressure medication. If Drug C looks more like Drug A than it looks like Drug B, a busy pharmacist could make a potentially fatal mistake and dispense medication for low blood pressure instead of high blood pressure.
The study also suggests the different appearances of generic drugs may be confusing for patients. If a person changes pharmacies, he or she must be prepared for a different looking pill when refilling a prescription. Prozac will always look the same, but the generic pill’s appearance may differ depending on whether a patient visits Walgreens, CVS, Target or Walmart as there are four generic versions. This may make it difficult for patients to adhere to their medication regimens.
Furthermore, mandating that generics look different from the branded version may impact their effectiveness with regards to the placebo effect. This is particularly concerning when a drug is prescribed to treat a condition with psychosomatic components, or physical symptoms caused by the mind. Color, shape, and even cost of a medication can be perceived as making it “better.” So if a generic version does not look like its brand-name counterpart, some might question its effectiveness.
The researchers involved in the study suggested drug companies adopt color-coding systems to avoid this kind of medication mix-up. Under this system, Drug A would be a different color from Drugs B and C, reducing the risk of a medication error
. This would also ensure pills look similar, reducing patient confusion and a negative placebo effect.