Standardize drug names and reduce the risk of medication errors

Ever get confused over the names of medicines?

I do.

There’s Zantac and Xanax. Zanaflex and Zaleplon.

But Zanaflex is also known as tizanidine. Tizanidine functions very differently than Zantac and its other name, ranitidine, even though they sound alike.

Every drug has (at least) two names — one proprietary, and one generic. Proprietary names are created to sound catchy by the original manufacturer, almost always under a patent. The generic names are more like chemical names, in that drugs of the same class that are similarly purposed will have common suffixes, like the cholesterol controlling pills known as  statins, or the cardiac medications known as beta-blockers (whose names end with “-olol”).

As Theresa Brown points out in her most recent New York Times column, this is a recipe for disaster.

One way to cope with this issue in the medical world is to insist on the use of generic names. One of my professors used to do that. If a medication’s trade name were used, he would insist he’d never heard of that drug.

Medical journals, though chock-full of proprietary-named drug ads, insist on generic names in their scientific articles. Better to separate the wheat from the chaff.

One addition to Brown’s piece: There’s lots of confusion over generics, too. Since any drug manufacturer is able to make and sell generics, multiple companies can make the same medication though the pills (because of the inert additives) might look entirely different.

I riffed about this previously, and the harm it caused a patient of mine.

Why not mandate a standard pill size/shape/color for generics and minimize the likelihood of error?

John Schumann is an internal medicine physician who blogs at GlassHospital.

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  • ninguem

    I always thought Barfital would be a great name for a drug.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Perhaps what is needed is a more certain way of prescribing and dispensing to reduce errors, more than the names. There will always be similar sounding names. And it’s not a new problem. The blockbuster Prilosec used to be Losec, and the name was changed in 1990 because people were getting Lasix or vice-versa. The change created new confusion between Prilosec and Prozac. So if there were some sort of automated way to specify a drug and its indication, between the two criteria, many prescriber errors could be averted; while a computer-printed output would reduce dispensing errors (which is probably where most of the errors occur anyway).
    As a side note, the FDA has been reluctant to approve brand names that are “catchy” and mean something. Gone are the days of names like Losec, Vasotec and Lipitor and Procardia, and here are the days of Gleevec and Sklice and Yervoy and Vaqta and Vumon and Juxtapid.

  • Bob

    All you guys are in luck, as soon all drugs will have the same name as all the brands [of which a few Rx's will still be written] will be off patent and all generic, made all over the world Mainly in India and China, where the FDA can’t inspect decently not having the money in the budget or the ability to speak the languages and dialects.
    I wonder where the required FDA NDC’s, Lot numbers and expiration dates are affixed in English.

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