Understanding the Difference Between Specialty and Non-Specialty Medications

Oct 10, 2023


Alto Pharmacy

illustration of a an alto pharmacist looking at medications
illustration of a an alto pharmacist looking at medications
illustration of a an alto pharmacist looking at medications

Specialty medications, which play a role in the treatment of many chronic conditions, are less widely used and more complex than traditional or non-specialty medications. They aren’t available at all pharmacies and often require additional considerations such as special handling and storage conditions, ongoing clinical monitoring, and more. If you’ve been prescribed a specialty medication, it is especially important to choose a reliable pharmacy with the necessary expertise to support your treatment plan.

Here’s more on the key differences between specialty and non-specialty medications and what to look for in a pharmacy partner.

What defines a specialty medication?

Specialty medications differ from non-specialty medications in several key ways:

  • Conditions treated

  • Source and manufacturing method

  • Administration

  • Ongoing clinical monitoring

  • Cost

  • Availability

Conditions treated

Specialty medications were first created to treat complex and rare diseases including cancer and multiple sclerosis. While the usage of specialty medications has broadened over time — some are now used to treat asthma, eczema, and other well-known conditions — they still target much less common diseases in comparison to non-specialty medications.

These are among the conditions most commonly treated with specialty medications:

Many fertility medications also fall into the category of specialty medications due to their limited distribution and special considerations around handling, storage, and administration.

Source and manufacturing method

Many, but not all, specialty medications are biologics, which are derived from natural sources including the sugars, proteins, cells, and tissues of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Typically produced with cutting-edge technology, biologics are frequently involved in medical breakthroughs. Some are even the first and only effective treatment option for a condition. Part of what makes biologics both so complex and so impactful is that they can target very specific pathways in the body.


While there are topical and oral specialty medications, many can only be administered by injection.

The majority of injectable specialty medications can be self-administered but others require medical supervision. Many have atypical dosing frequencies such as weekly, every two weeks, every month, or every 8-12 weeks. Variation in dosing — for example, starter, titration, and maintenance doses — is also common.

If you take a self-administered injectable medication, Alto offers support with injection technique education.

Ongoing clinical monitoring

Treatment with specialty medications often includes routine testing, clinical monitoring, and side effect management. This is due to both the complexity of specialty medications themselves — many of which have a greater potential for side effects and interactions — and the progressive and serious nature of many of the diseases they treat.


In general, specialty medications are considerably more expensive than non-specialty medications. Since they are more complicated to produce and used by a relatively small number of people, manufacturers are able to set higher prices. On top of that, with only a handful of manufacturers behind these medications, there’s little marketplace competition to drive prices down.

There is growing demand for more affordable generic versions of biologic medications, but due to the manufacturing complexities, progress remains slow.


While any non-specialty medication can be dispensed at most traditional retail and mail order pharmacies, specialty medications have much more limited distribution due to their unique considerations and, relatedly, FDA-mandated monitoring. They can only be dispensed from a select number of pharmacies, some of which may be referred to as specialty pharmacies.

As a full-service pharmacy, Alto carries both the widely used medications of a retail pharmacy as well as many specialty medications.

What to look for in a pharmacy partner when taking specialty medications

Given the complexity of specialty medications, it’s especially important to choose a reliable and supportive pharmacy partner. Here are the top factors to consider as you explore your options.

  • Fast and reliable delivery of medication and supplies: Precise dosing is extremely important when taking a specialty medication for a complex condition, so look for a pharmacy that can guarantee fast medication access. They should also be able to deliver the ancillary supplies necessary for medication injection, if applicable, including syringes, needles, and sharps containers.

  • Access to expert pharmacists: Your pharmacist should be a partner in your care, providing the information you need to take your medications as prescribed, and helping you navigate side effects and interactions. In addition to clinical expertise, consider how easy it is to get in touch with your pharmacy’s team and their hours of availability.

  • Medication management support: A great pharmacy partner will make it convenient to stay on top of your prescriptions with medication management tools like auto refills and dosing reminders.

  • Assistance with insurance coordination: Specialty medications often require a prior authorization for insurance coverage. To avoid unnecessary delays, or unnecessary frustration, choose a pharmacy partner that supports the PA process and can also coordinate with your doctor’s office.

A simpler pharmacy experience for complex treatment

Alto makes it easier to manage your prescriptions, and we’re here with personalized support at every step of your health journey.

Our expert pharmacists are just a message away, and we have a team of medication therapy management pharmacists who focus exclusively on support for chronic conditions. We also offer same-day delivery and medication management tools like reminders, auto refills, and medication bundling.

To learn more, reach out any time through secure in-app messaging.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Believe in a better pharmacy

Believe in a better pharmacy

Believe in a better pharmacy