Who should name our drugs?

Pharmaceutical names are an important part of branding products. They are designed to encode a message about the product. Older names were focussed on the clinical aspects of a drug. Sometimes they alluded to the disease such as Procardia for heart problems and Tamiflu for influenza treatment. Other names related to what the drug does such as Glucophage for blood glucose lowering or Levitra for erectile dysfunction.

The letters X, Y, and Z were popular in drugs. because they sounded high-tech. Now its names that sound like coffee machines.

At least with a name that somehow related to the disease or how the drug worked, clinicians had a chance at remembering the name. More recently, the naming of drugs has turned populist. Fads in drug naming come and go. Last decade, the letters X, Y,  and Z started to appear in brand names because they sounded high-tech, like Xanax. Conversely, H, J, and W were sometimes avoided because they were difficult to pronounce in some languages. Products for women tend to include S, M, or L to produce a softer sound such as Yasmin.

About USD 2.5 million is spent on finding the right name for a drug. The modern brand name has to be easy to pronounce, short, distinctive and difficult to imitate.Fads in drug naming come and go. The trend now is towards names that sound like espresso coffee machines, such as Tagrisso and Natesto.

Whilst there are regulatory requirements for pharmaceutical products, there are no requirements for these names to be user friendly to patients nor prescribers. Without a continuous advertising programme, new drug names are virtually impossible to relate to the clinical setting and after the initial flush of promotion the problems that can be caused by populist names become apparent.

With names that bear no resemblance to their use, mistakes in prescribing are inevitable. The Institute for Safe Medical Products updates list of confused drug names regularly. The number of drugs on it run into the thousands.

Spelling mistakes in drug names are also starting to occur in scientific publications. Letter substitutions and omissions together occur in 2% of all peer-reviewed publications and this is increasing.

It is time for a regulated naming system for pharmaceutical products which makes the naming of drugs user friendly in the long term not just in the initial advertising.

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