What patients need to know about biologics and biosimilars

A biologic medicine is a drug that is created from living cells and is used in the treatment of conditions including anemia, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, hormone deficiency and some cancers. Evidence shows that biologics have “dramatically improved” the quality of life for patients by stopping the progression of disease and sometimes achieving disease remissions.

A biosimilar is a drug that is similar but not identical to the innovator brand name biologic. Because both are made using genetically engineered living cells they are impossible to replicate exactly with current science.  As the patents for innovator brand name biologics expire, biosimilars are entering the market; this has many patients and healthcare professionals discussing what the ideal treatment course is.

For anyone who is being prescribed a biologic medication, it’s important that they receive the medication that they expect to. Thus, it is important for patients to fully understand the complexity of these drugs, the differences between them, and the possible implications of switching from an innovator brand name biologic to a biosimilar.

In a 2015 survey of patients suffering from arthritis, an overwhelming majority of patients believed that the responsibility of prescribing a biologic should belong to the patient and the physician. If a doctor prescribed someone an innovator brand name drug, a patient could inadvertently receive a biosimilar.

So how can patients play an active role when it comes to the decision-making process to ensure they are getting the medication they expect? Below are some key considerations and questions every patient should understand when it comes to their prescriptions.

Be Ready with Questions for Your Doctor

Health Canada recommends that any decision to switch from an innovator brand name biologic to a biosimilar should be made by the treating physician in consultation with the patient, taking into account available clinical evidence and any policies of the relevant jurisdiction. Some questions to consider asking include:

  1. What is the difference between a brand name biologic and a biosimilar? Is it similar to brand name vs. generic drugs?
  1. Does it make a difference which one I take? Does one have any advantage over the other?
  1. Based on my condition, how well I am doing on my current medication and what you know about my overall health, what do you recommend I take?
  1. What are the implications of switching from a brand name biologic to a biosimilar?
  1. Will my private health insurance cover both types of treatment?

Given the nuance surrounding innovator brand name biologics and biosimilars, patients and their physicians should make health decisions together. By providing patients with all their available treatment options, doctors can help them take a more active role in this decision-making process, and help them ensure they get the medication they expect.

After reading this article, are you more likely to speak to your physician?

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