BACKGROUND: The use of brand rather than generic names for medications can increase health care costs. However, little is known at a national level about how often physicians refer to drugs using their brand or generic names. OBJECTIVE: To evaluate how often physicians refer to drugs using brand or generic terminology. DESIGN AND PARTICIPANTS: We used data from the 2003 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS), a nationally representative survey of 25,288 community-based outpatient visits in the United States. After each visit, patient medications were recorded on a survey encounter form by the treating physician or transcribed from office notes. MEASUREMENTS: Our main outcome measure was the frequency with which medications were recorded on the encounter form using their brand or generic names. RESULTS: For 20 commonly used drugs, the median frequency of brand name use was 98% (interquartile range, 81-100%). Among 12 medications with no generic competition at the time of the survey, the median frequency of brand name use was 100% (range 92-100%). Among 8 medications with generic competition at the time of the survey ("multisource" drugs), the median frequency of brand name use was 79% (range 0-98%; P<.001 for difference between drugs with and without generic competition). CONCLUSIONS: Physicians refer to most medications by their brand names, including drugs with generic formulations. This may lead to higher health care costs by promoting the use of brand-name products when generic alternatives are available. © 2007 Society of General Internal Medicine.