Telehealth and social media are playing a major role in increasing demand for Ozempic, a prescription drug that treats type 2 diabetes, experts told CNN. The current drug shortage has limited access for diabetes patients who rely on it to control their blood sugar.
Digital health companies are making it easier to get drugs like Ozempic by providing prescriptions online. Many advertise quick and easy — sometimes same-day — access.
“Anecdotally, it’s almost easier to take medication [via digital health companies]said Dr. Disha Narang, endocrinologist and director of obesity medicine at Northwestern Medicine, Lake Forest Hospital. “But not always the safest.” People who entered average weight on the online intake forms were still offered the diabetes drug, Narang told CNN.
Partly 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 exceeded forecast expectations for 2022 and is expected to become a nearly $2 billion industry by 2023.
WeightWatchers is also tapping into the telehealth prescription drug space. Last week, the company bought the subscription telehealth service Sequence, which helps connect patients with doctors who can prescribe drugs for weight loss and diabetes.
“In early 2022, these companies weren’t marketing this stuff,” Narang said, noting that the hype around Ozempic took off in 2022. “I think we really have to start questioning our ethics around it.”
There are few general requirements when it comes to hiring processes for digital health companies, Dr. Bree Holtz, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who studies telemedicine. Once a patient fills out the required forms online, the information is transferred to an in-state provider who can fill the prescription. Some companies require the patient to make a video or phone call with the provider — others do not.
“It’s a little scary to be able to just wake up and get these appointments — or these medications — 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 who live in places where high-quality primary care isn’t available, direct-to-consumer telehealth services can help fill a gap, said Dr. Laurie Buis, an 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 it 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 that a primary care physician otherwise could.
“I have no doubt that some of these agencies are doing good work,” Buis said. “There are also services that don’t take it so seriously. And that’s worrying.”
The US Food and Drug Administration first announced that Ozempic was in short supply last August. Supplies will likely be tight through mid-March, according to the FDA’s drug shortage database.
Ozempic prescriptions in the US hit an all-time high 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 a 111% increase, compared to the same week in 2022.
Of those, more than half were new prescriptions, according to a CNN review of JP Morgan analysis.
As many patients rely on Ozempic to treat diabetes, providers like Narang are scrambling to figure out what alternatives to put their patients on.
“We get messages every day about patients not being able to take their own medication,” Narang said. “It was difficult for both patients and providers.”
Ozempic currently has more than 40% of the US 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 intestine.
Ozempic has grown rapidly in popularity since it first came on the market in 2018. The drug has been used safely and successfully to help diabetics improve blood sugar levels and put diabetes into remission, Narang said. on CNN. Ozempic is the most potent of all the GLP-1 drugs, he said.
Behind the brand name Ozempic is the drug semaglutide. While Ozempic is primarily used to treat Type 2 diabetes, another drug called Wegovy — also semaglutide — has been approved specifically for chronic weight management.
Although 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 has been out of stock since late last March, but was back in stock earlier this year.
Social media buzz around the two drugs took off 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 his weight loss.
#Ozempic and #Wegovy have been “extremely popular” in recent months on TikTok, according to the company’s analytics.
The use of Ozempic and Wegovy for short-term weight loss has resulted in real consequences for patients who need the drugs most for diabetes treatment and chronic weight management, Narang said. For example, some insurance companies in the past have reportedly refused to cover Wegovy, calling it a “vanity drug.”
Both drugs are intended for long-term use, not for short-term weight loss. Their appetite-regulating action wears off quickly after you stop taking them.
“This is not meant to be a drug to shed your last five or 10 pounds to prepare for an event or anything like that. It is not for three- or four-week use,” Narang said. “When we think about weight management, we think about the next 25 years of someone’s life.”