Ozempic prescriptions can be easy to get online. Its popularity for weight loss is hurting those who need it most
Telemedicine and social media are playing a big role in driving demand for Ozempic, a prescription drug for type 2 diabetes, experts told CNN. Current drug shortages limit access to medications for people with diabetes who rely on them to control blood sugar.
Digital health companies are making drugs like Ozempic more accessible by providing prescriptions online. Many advertise quick and easy – sometimes same day – access.
“Interestingly, access to medicines is almost easier [via digital health companies]”But it's not always the safest,” says Dr. Disha Narang, an endocrinologist and director of obesity medicine at Northwestern Medicine at Lake Forest Hospital. People who fill out their average weight on online intake forms can still take antidiabetic drugs, says Narang. CNN.
Due in part to Ozempic's popularity, the prescription diet drug market has grown significantly, according to independent market research and consulting firm MarketData Enterprises. The market has surpassed forecasters' expectations for 2022 and is expected to become a nearly $2 billion industry by 2023.
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WeightWatchers is also moving into the telemedicine prescription drug space. Last week, the company bought Sequence, a telehealth subscription service that helps connect patients with doctors who can prescribe weight-loss and diabetes medicines.
“At the beginning of 2022, these companies are not marketing this kind of thing,” Narang said, noting that advertisements around Ozempic became popular in 2022. “I think we really need to start questioning our ethics in this regard.”
Dr. Bree Holtz, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies telehealth, told CNN there are few blanket requirements when it comes to the onboarding process for digital health companies. Once a patient completes the required form online, the information is transmitted to an in-state provider who can prescribe it. Some companies require patients to video or phone calls with providers — others do not.
“It's kind of scary that you wake up and have these appointments — or these medications — and you're not being taken care of,” Holtz said.
Telemedicine has been a game changer in the delivery of healthcare, especially during the pandemic. Especially for people living in places without access to high-quality primary care, direct-to-consumer telehealth services can help fill the gap, said Dr. Laurie Buis, an associate professor in the University of Michigan's Department of Family Medicine, whose research focuses on digital health.
However, when patients begin to seek elective care from selective providers, Buis said that opens the door to issues such as fragmented care or abuse. Telehealth providers may not have access to a patient's complete medical history, and may not be able to provide the holistic care that a primary care physician could otherwise provide.
“I have no doubt that some of these services are doing very well,” Buis said. “There are also some services that are not taking it as seriously. That's worrying.”
Ozempic's Rise in Popularity
The FDA first announced a shortage of Ozempic last August. Supplies could be tight by mid-March, according to the FDA Drug Shortage Database.
U.S. prescriptions for Ozempic hit an all-time high in the last week of February, with more than 373,000 prescriptions filled, according to a JPMorgan analysis of data IQVIA shared with CNN. Compared to the same week in 2022, this is an increase of 111%.
More than half of those were new prescriptions, according to a CNN review of the JPMorgan analysis.
With many patients relying on Ozempic for their diabetes treatment, providers like Narang are scrambling to find alternatives to put their patients on.
“We receive messages every day about patients not being able to access their own medicines,” Narang said. “It's been tough for patients and providers.”
Ozempic now has more than 40 percent of the U.S. market for glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists, a class of drugs that mimic appetite-regulating hormones, according to a JPMorgan analysis. These drugs work by stimulating the release of insulin, which helps lower blood sugar. They can also slow down the rate at which food moves through the intestines.
Since first hitting the market in 2018, Ozempic has quickly gained popularity. Narang told CNN that the drug has been used safely and successfully to help people with diabetes improve blood sugar levels and bring diabetes into remission. Ozempic is the most potent of all the GLP-1 drugs, she said.
The brand name Ozempic is behind the drug semaglutide. While Ozempic is primarily used to treat type 2 diabetes, another drug called Wegovy (also semaglutide) is approved specifically for chronic weight management.
Even though the FDA approved Wegovy in 2021, it wasn't readily available for much of last year, so people turned to Ozempic, Narang said. According to the FDA Drug Shortage Database, Wegovy was in low supply starting in late March last year, but was back in stock earlier this year.
Social media buzz around the two drugs is rife in early 2023. Celebrities share their testimonials on how semaglutide has helped them lose unwanted pounds. Elon Muskfor example, his weight loss is publicly attributed in part to Ozempic and Wegovy.
According to company analysis, #Ozempic and #Wegovy have been “very popular” on TikTok over the past few months.
Short-term weight loss with Ozempic and Wegovy has had a real impact on patients most in need of diabetes treatment and long-term weight-management drugs, Narang said. For example, some insurers have reportedly refused to cover Wegovy in the past, with one calling it a “vanity drug.”
Both drugs are meant for long-term use, not short-term weight loss. Their appetite-regulating effects disappear soon after you stop taking them.
“It's not a drug that's meant to lose the last 5 or 10 pounds to get ready for an event or something like that. It's not for three to four weeks,” Narang said. “When we think about weight management, we're thinking about a person's future. 25 years of life.”
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