Telehealth and social media are playing an important role in driving demand for Ozempic, a prescription drug that treats type 2 diabetes, experts told CNN. The current shortage of drugs has limited access for diabetes patients who rely on them to control their blood sugar.
Digital health companies are making drugs like Ozempic easier to get by providing prescriptions online. Many advertise quick and easy — sometimes same-day — access.
“Anecdotally, it’s almost easier to get drugs [via digital health companies]said Disha Narang, MD, endocrinologist and director of obesity medicine at Northwestern Medicine, Lake Forest Hospital. “But it’s not always the safest.” People who listed an average weight on online admission forms were still offered the anti-diabetic drug, Narang told CNN.
In part because of Ozempic’s popularity, the market for prescription weight-loss drugs has grown significantly, according to MarketData Enterprises, an independent market research and consulting firm. The market has surpassed the expectations of 2022 forecasts and is expected to become a nearly $2 billion industry in 2023.
WeightWatchers is also entering the field of telehealth with prescription drugs. Last week, the company bought Sequence, a subscription telehealth service that helps connect patients with doctors who can prescribe weight-loss and diabetes drugs.
“At the beginning of 2022, these companies weren’t advertising these things,” Narang said, noting that the hype around Ozempic began to take off in 2022. “I think we really have to start questioning our ethics around it. ”
There are a few general requirements when it comes to the adoption processes of digital health companies, Dr. Bree Holtz, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies telemedicine, told CNN. After the patient fills out the necessary forms online, the information is transferred to an in-state provider who can write the prescription. Some companies require the patient to engage in a video or phone call with the provider – others require neither.
“It’s kind of scary that you can just wake up and get these appointments — or these pharmaceuticals — and not be taken care of,” Holtz said.
Telehealth has changed the game in providing access to healthcare, especially during the pandemic. And especially for people living in places where high-quality primary care isn’t available, direct-to-consumer telehealth services can help fill the gap, said Lori Buis, MD, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan. whose research focuses on digital health.
But when patients start seeking selective treatment from selective providers, Buis says that opens the door to problems like fragmented care or abuse. Telehealth providers may not have access to a patient’s complete medical history and may be less able to provide holistic care than a primary care physician might otherwise be able to.
“I have no doubt that some of these services are doing good work,” Buis said. “There are also services that do not take it so seriously. And that is cause for concern.”
The US Food and Drug Administration first declared Ozempic in short supply in August of last year. Supplies are likely to be tight through mid-March, according to the FDA’s drug shortage database.
Prescriptions for Ozempic in the U.S. reached their highest level in the last week of February, with more than 373,000 prescriptions filled, according to a JP Morgan analysis of IQVIA data shared with CNN. This is an increase of 111%, compared to the same week in 2022.
Of those, more than half are new prescriptions, according to a CNN review of JP Morgan analysis.
With so many patients relying on Ozempic to treat diabetes, providers like Narang are struggling to figure out what alternatives to offer their patients.
“Every day we receive reports of patients who are unable to get their medicines,” Narang said. “It was difficult for both patients and providers.”
Ozempic currently holds more than 40% of the U.S. market share of glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists — a class of drugs that mimic an appetite-regulating hormone — according to a JP Morgan analysis. These drugs work by stimulating the release of insulin, which helps lower blood sugar. They also slow the passage of food through the intestines.
Ozempic’s popularity has grown rapidly since it was first launched in 2018. The drug has been safely and successfully used to help diabetics improve blood sugar levels and put diabetes into remission, Narang told CNN. Ozempic is the most potent of all the GLP-1 drugs, she said.
The drug semaglutide is behind the Ozempic brand. While Ozempic is primarily used to treat type 2 diabetes, another drug called Wegovy — also semaglutide — is approved specifically for chronic weight management.
Although it was approved by the FDA in 2021, Wegovy wasn’t readily available for most of last year, according to Narang, so people turned to Ozempic. According to the FDA’s drug shortage database, Wegovy was out of stock at the end of last March, but was back in stock earlier this year.
The buzz on social media surrounding the two drugs grew in early 2023. Celebrities shared their testimonials about how semaglutide helped them shed unwanted pounds. Elon Muskfor example, publicly credited Ozempic and Wegovy in part for weight loss.
#Ozempic and #Wegovy have been “extremely popular” over the past few months on TikTok, according to the company’s analytics.
Using Ozempic and Wegovy for short-term weight loss has led to real-world implications for patients who most need the drugs to treat diabetes and chronic weight management, Narang said. For example, some insurance companies have refused to cover Wegovy in the past, with one calling it a “vanity drug.”
Both drugs are intended for long-term use, not for short-term weight loss. Their appetite-regulating effects wear off quickly once you stop taking them.
“It’s not meant to be a drug to shed your last five or 10 pounds to get ready for an event or anything like that. It has not been used for three or four weeks,” Narang said. “When we think about weight management, we think about the next 25 years of someone’s life.”