Dr. W. Gifford-Jones: Hazards of birth control pill substitution

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

A 22-year-old student asked, “I’ve been on the birth control pill for several years. Now my pharmacist wants to give me a generic BCP rather than my regular one. What should I know about these other pills?” It’s a good question, and parents should also be concerned about substitution.

Brand-name birth control pills are those produced by established pharmaceutical companies that have spent years of research and millions of dollars to develop the pill. But once their patent expires, other companies can make a copycat version.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada reports that it welcomes the increased choice of less expensive options. But it adds that to qualify as an equivalent to existing brands, generic pills must meet a “blood standard.” At the present time, generic formulations have no “Pearl Index” rating, the effective standard for evaluation of the effectiveness of a contraceptive method.

The SOGC also believes that substitutions should not be made by a pharmacist without notifying both the patient and her health provider. And that switching from a brand name to a generic BCP, or vice versa, can have negative results.

So what are the possible pitfalls of substitution? It’s been said that it’s not wise to change horses in mid stream as you may end up swimming to save your life. Similarly, switching from a familiar BCP to a generic product can trigger unforeseen problems, especially with the lowest dose BCPs available today. One of the major traps made by young women is stopping the pill altogether.

Today there are few side effects to birth control pills. But the patient who is free of symptoms on a brand pill, then develops problems on a substitution pill, all too often stops the medication. She then makes the next grievous error by failing to use other means of contraception. The result is often unwanted pregnancy.

Familiarity with a product also plays an important role in compliance whether we’re dealing with our favorite soap, TV program or BCP. So patients who identify with a brand name are more likely to stay on it, which is the ultimate goal to prevent undesired pregnancies.

To achieve compliance, it’s also wise to avoid confusing the medical consumer. For instance, in the U.S. some brand name birth control pills now have five generic copycat versions! This means that different colored pills and different packaging both set the stage for possible mix-ups.

For many years, brand-name companies have provided starter packages to doctors. This allows physicians to explain how the pill works and why it’s important to take the pill at the same time each day. Equally important, the pill is immediately available to the patient  as many are already sexually active.

But what’s the single most important message for teenagers and others? Over the years I’ve seen many unwanted pregnancies in my practice and the problems they create. So women who are sexually active should use the BCP whether it’s a brand or generic version. And also remember that neither of these pills prevents sexually transmitted disease.

There’s also a tendency to ignore the many other benefits of the BCP. It’s been available for nearly 60 years and has stood the test of time. If everything in life were as safe at “the pill,” it would be a wonderful world.

Women on the pill are exposed to only half the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer as other women. This is a huge advantage as ovarian cancer is difficult to diagnose. Pill users also have fewer pelvic operations, benign breast cysts, menstrual pain, and troublesome bleeding. Total this up and it’s evident that birth control pills have added a new and positive dimension to the lives of women.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is actually Dr. Ken Walker, a practicing physician in Toronto who writes many columns at his Bristol Harbour, N.Y., residence. See the Web site www.mydoctor.ca/gifford-jones.