Active ingredient prescribing: all you need to know

Since February 2021, scripts from your doctor have looked different. Most medicines are now prescribed by their active ingredient rather than their brand name. The change was part of an Australian Government program to improve general understanding of active ingredients.


What is an active ingredient?

An active ingredient is what makes a medicine work. A brand name is the name given to a medicine by the company that makes it.

There are a lot of medicines that have the same active ingredient but don't have the same brand names. This is not unique to medicines. Many supermarket products are the same on the inside, but don't have the same brand names.

All medicines should have their active ingredients listed on the pack or box they come in. This is the same for prescription medicines and for those you might buy at the pharmacy, supermarket, or health store.

The pack or box also shows how much active ingredient is in that certain product. This is the strength. Some medicines can have the same brand name but come in more than one strength. People with certain health conditions or people from different age groups (eg, babies, infants, adults) might need to use different strengths of a medicine with the same active ingredient.

Sometimes, a medicine will have more than one active ingredient. You can find the name of each ingredient on the pack or pharmacy label.

You can download the content in this web page as a file that is easy to print. You can find the translated versions at the end of this web page (see card 8).

About generic medicines

A drug company can ask for a patent when it makes a new active ingredient. This means that for a length of time, no one else can make that ingredient, or sell a product that has the same ingredient.

Some people call this first medicine to come onto the market the originator brand.

After a certain time has passed, others can start making their own versions of the active ingredient. Some people call these generic brand medicines. The active ingredient is the same, but the newer versions have new brand names.

Due to rules around the patent, generic brands may not look the same as the originator brand. The pack, and sometimes the form itself (such as the pill, tablet, capsule), may not look the same.

What difference will using a generic medicine make?

The government approves all medicines sold in Australia through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The TGA checks generic brands against originator brands and makes sure they:

  • meet the same strict standards of quality, are safe and helpful
  • have proof it will work in the body in the same way as the original medicine (this is called being bioequivalent).

For most originator and generic medicines, the helpful and not helpful effects will be the same. This is because all versions have the same active ingredient.

For you, the main difference between the originator and a generic is likely to be cost. Generic brands cost less to make, and that means they tend to cost less to buy.

Your doctor may choose to give you a certain brand. If not, you can choose the brand you want to use.

Be medicinewise by talking about your choices with your doctor or pharmacist. Having one doctor or pharmacist you see often might help you feel more relaxed when having these talks.

What is active ingredient prescribing?

Since February 2021, scripts for Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and Repatriation PBS (RPBS) medicines must show their active ingredients. If a doctor wants to include the brand name, it will appear after the active ingredient name.

This helps improve public knowledge around active ingredients. This adds to other government programs that have made active ingredient names on medicine packs easy to find and read.

These actions make it easier for you to talk to your health professional about your choices for different medicines that have the same active ingredient. You may be able to choose the brand you want to use, which may be the cheaper option.

Listing active ingredients also helps people see information about what they take in the same way. This can lead to safer and better use of medicines. It will make it easy for you to:

  • check if you are taking the same active ingredient in other things you take. This will lower your chance of taking double your normal amount by mistake.
  • check that you’re not taking something you can react to
  • check that the medicine is okay to take with your other medicines
  • check brands that can replace what you take when you visit other countries.

Sometimes, you may need to stick with the same brand. Doctors can still give you a certain brand if they think it’s needed.

What you take may have more than one active ingredient. The doctor will list them all on the script (except as explained below).

Active ingredients do not have to be shown on a script if:

  • the prescriber writes the script by hand
  • the prescriber is using paper-based medicine charts in the aged care sector
  • there are four or more active ingredients
  • the prescriber does not include the medicine on the script to protect patient safety
  • it is not practical to prescribe by the active ingredient.

When to keep taking the original brand

Although you can often save money by choosing a generic brand, some people should not change brands. Your doctor may choose to prescribe you a certain brand. This is because they believe it is the one that best meets your health needs. It might be because of how it works in your body, or because some of the other ingredients in the medicine suit you better.

If your doctor decides to keep you on a certain brand they will need to add the brand name and mark the ‘Brand substitution not permitted’ box on your script.

Other ingredients in medicines

As well as the active ingredient, the medicine you take may have other ingredients. These are inactive ingredients or excipients.

The active ingredient is the chemical that makes the medicine work. Companies may need to add other things when they make the medicine:

  • to fill the product if the amount of active ingredient is very small
  • to keep the active ingredient from changing so it can work for longer
  • to help your body better take in the active ingredient
  • to bind or hold everything together
  • to change the taste to make it easy to take or give (such as for young children)
  • to coat the tablet or capsule to help it go down your throat.

For most people, these inactive ingredients won’t matter. Other people can react or not be able to handle certain ones. Some people may choose to not take certain ingredients because of their faith or health. That is why you need to know what is in the medicines you take. Things like lactose, gluten, sugar, preservatives, and dyes might matter to you. If this is the case, be medicinewise, read the CMI and check with your health professional. They will help you choose a brand that is best for your health needs.

What information is there for health professionals?

The Department of Health has worked with the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care to make a range of support materials. These aim to help health professionals stay up to date with new rules or changes. The materials can help explain why doctors might want to put brand names on the script they give you. This will help them make sure they can protect your safety.

Health professionals can learn more about active ingredient prescribing from the Department of Health. There is also a fact sheet for them to use.

NPS MedicineWise also has information for health professionals.

    Where can I find out more?

    • For more information about Active Ingredient Prescribing send your questions to [email protected]
    • Find information on medicines by active ingredient or brand name using Medicine Finder.
    • For questions about prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines, talk to a health professional through Medicines Line (1300 MEDICINE)(1300 633 424).
    • Keep track of medicines and access important health info anytime and anywhere, especially in emergencies, using the MedicineWise app.

    Translated materials

    These will help support you when talking about safe use of medicines and learn more about generic brands. You can find the content in English and 10 community languages.


    Date published : 30 April 2021

    Chinese (simplified)

    Date published : 30 April 2021

    Chinese (traditional)

    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021


    Date published : 30 April 2021