What’s in a name? The method behind naming conventions for medicines

4 min read
First Published: 
Jun 2021

Naming a new medicine or drug may seem like it would be a straightforward process – perhaps along the lines of incorporating its active ingredients and purpose for use. But with so many hundreds of thousands of medicines already out there, it can actually be quite complicated, as of course no two drugs can sound the same. It would be confusing, and potentially very dangerous.

Which is why there are a few tried-and-true methods that pharmaceutical companies adhere to (alongside having to meet guidelines from the official industry bodies). And perhaps surprisingly, there is also an opportunity for some ‘creative’ flex from time to time.

Compound registration & Chemical name

Right at the early stages of a drug’s development, they are given an identifier in a sequence of numbers. This allows it to be categorised and tracked as it undergoes further tests and analysis. So for example, if it is Pfizer who has a new medicine under development, they will register it in a database with PF (for Pfizer) and 10 numbers – like PF-01234567-89.

Pharmaceutical companies may also give the medicine a chemical name – following the rules set by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. These describe the molecular structure of the drug, but as they can be rather complex, the chemical names are very rarely used in full, especially as the medicine gets closer to being registered with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and approved for clinical trials.

Generic vs. brand

Once a drug has been certified for use in clinical trials, showing promise for a potential release to market, it is given a generic name. This came about due to the need to have a standard name the world over – because no matter where someone is located, it’s crucial that they are able to access the same medication without confusion or misinterpretation.

Generic names are usually based on a formula, with the suffix (or end of the name) actually relaying information to doctors, pharmacists and nurses about how the substance works in the body. For example, anything that ends in ‘tadine’ is known as an antihistamine, which reduces or blocks histamines – stopping allergy symptoms. Some generic versions of these include cyproheptadine, desloratadine, loratadine and olopatadine.

The prefix, or start of the generic name, is about choosing syllables that are different from other generic names in the same category, as well as ensuring they aren’t too complex to pronounce. Again, they need to be able to be distinguishable from other medications, but not so difficult there may be misunderstandings when it comes to using them in everyday life.

Then comes the pharmaceutical brand name – which gives the company rights to own the drug and market it under a particular name. Companies can also file for permission to sell an off-patent drug (medicine of which there are no exclusive marketing rights because the patent has expired) and can then create their own brand name for it. Which means that ultimately, a generic medicine can actually be sold under a myriad of brand names. Take paracetamol for example – it is also known as tylenol, panadol, and more than 50 other names across the world.

To come up with a brand name, the process can certainly be laborious – it has to be unique enough to be different from any other drug on the market! But then also easily accessible to the everyday consumer, which is where an element of creativity comes into play. Sometimes a company will come up with several hundred options and once they narrow them down to the final 10 or so (which could take a year or more), they go through a careful screening process to check a list of criteria:

  • That the potential names truly are different from anything else on the market (generic or branded) – and for those who want to go global, that’s a lot of work!
  • That the name translates well into other languages.
  • Rigorous safety scrutiny – which can even include various people writing simulated prescriptions to ensure there would never be any confusion when it comes to dispensing the drug.
  • Market research – asking health professionals outside of the organisation to provide feedback on the options.

WHO gets the final say?

Pun intended – WHO (the World Health Organisation) gets the final say on generic names. In the US, pharmaceutical companies have to submit three to six names to the United States Adopted Names (USAN) Council first. And once it approves one for use, USAN then has to clear it with WHO. Sometimes they are accepted the first time around, sometimes there is a counter-proposal for a variant of the original, and sometimes it’s back to the drawing board.

For brand names in the US, they can only submit one proposed name to The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and two to the European Medicines Agency (EMA). And it’s finger’s crossed that one gets approved!

So what’s in a medicine name? Plenty apparently. From humble beginnings as a sequence of numbers, to two distinctive names that allow it to be sold as a generic drug that you can find the world over, or as a brand-owned version that may (or may not) become a household name in its own right. You’ll probably never read your medicine labels the same again, right?

We'll deliver straight to your inbox

We take your privacy very seriously and will never share your details with other parties.
You're subscribed! We'll send you a welcome email shortly, keep an eye out and if you don't find it perhaps check the (sometimes over-zealous) spam folder.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Erin Harrison
Erin Harrison is a freelance writer. For over 14 years she has been creating content, for both print and online, across a wide range of industries. Erin enjoys the challenge of putting together words that will engage with the reader and teach them something new and interesting
Share this post

Discover the Power of Communication with Rx

Embark on your medcomms journey with Rx today and experience the difference of working with a world-class medical communications agency.

Child playing in autumn leaves
Copyright Rx Communications Ltd