For the most part, generic drugs work just as well as the more expensive brand names -- but doctors still forget to prescribe them.

Now, the University of Pennsylvania has stumbled upon a quick fix in its electronic system that can increase the practice.

Penn physician Mitesh Patel said making generics the default option in several Penn clinics boosted the frequency by an average of 5.4 percent for three classes of common medications.

"The physician had the option to opt out and still choose the brand, if warranted, but the path of least resistance was now to prescribe the generic medication," explained Patel.

For heart protective beta-blockers, generic prescribing rose 10.5 percent. The results were published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The tweak has the potential to save patients -- as well as insurers and health systems -- lots of money. In 2009, Medicaid paid an extra $329 million for prescriptions of 20 popular brand-name drugs. Recent evidence suggests generic drugs may even be more effective than brand names because patients can afford to stay on the medication.

Best of all, the change cost nothing -- and was no more work for doctors.

"There were no pop-up alerts, there was no educational session, or training session that needed to be done," he said. "This is something that fit within the physician's work flow."

Patel said similar modifications to electronic systems could remind doctors and patients of screenings for breast or colon cancer -- saving lives and cash over the long haul.