Telehealth and social media are playing a major role in driving demand for Ozempic, a prescription drug that treats type 2 diabetes, experts told CNN. The current drug shortage has limited access for patients with diabetes who rely on it to control their blood sugar levels.
Digital health companies are making drugs like Ozempic more readily available by providing prescriptions online. Many advertise quick and easy access, sometimes same day.
“Anecdotally, it’s almost easier to get meds [via digital health companies]said Dr. Disha Narang, an endocrinologist and director of obesity medicine at Northwestern Medicine, Lake Forest Hospital. “But not always the safest.” People who entered their average weight on the online intake forms were still offered the antidiabetic drug, Narang told CNN.
Partly due to the popularity of Ozempic, the market for prescription weight loss drugs has grown significantly, according to MarketData Enterprises, an independent market research and consulting firm. The market exceeded forecasters’ expectations for 2022 and is projected to become a nearly $2 billion industry by 2023.
WeightWatchers also uses the remote prescription drug space. Last week, the company bought telehealth subscription service Sequence, which helps connect patients with doctors who can prescribe medications for weight loss and diabetes.
“At the beginning of 2022, these companies weren’t marketing this stuff,” Narang said, noting that advertising around Ozempic will start in 2022. “I think we really need to question our ethics on this.”
There are few general requirements when it comes to digital health company intake processes, Dr. Bree Holtz, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies telemedicine, told CNN. Once a patient completes the required forms online, information is transferred to a local provider who can write the prescription. Some companies require the patient to have a video or phone call with the provider – others do not.
“It’s kind of scary that you can just wake up and take these appointments — or these medications — and not be taken care of,” Holtz said.
Telehealth has been a breakthrough in providing access to healthcare, especially during the pandemic. And especially for people who live in places where high-quality primary care is not available, direct-to-consumer telehealth services could 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.
However, when patients begin to seek selective treatment from selective providers, Buis opens the door to problems such as fragmented care or abuse. Telehealth providers may not have access to a patient’s full medical history and may be less able to provide holistic care than a primary care physician otherwise could.
“I have no doubt that some of these services do a good job,” says Buis. “There are also services that don’t take it that seriously. And that is worrying.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first announced a shortage of Ozempic last August. According to the FDA Drug Shortage Database, supply is likely to be under pressure until mid-March.
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. That is an increase of 111% compared to the same week in 2022.
Of these, more than half were new prescriptions, according to a CNN review of JP Morgan’s analysis
With many patients relying on Ozempic for diabetes treatment, healthcare providers like Narang are struggling to figure out what alternatives to give their patients.
“We get messages every day about patients who can’t get their own medication,” Narang said. “It’s been tough for both patients and caregivers.”
Ozempic currently holds 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 analysis by JP Morgan. These drugs work by stimulating the release of insulin, which helps lower blood sugar. They also slow down the passage of food through the intestines.
Ozempic has grown rapidly in popularity since it was first marketed in 2018. The drug has been used safely and successfully to help diabetics improve blood sugar control and put diabetes into remission, Narang told CNN. Ozempic is the most potent of all the GLP-1 drugs, she 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 Wegovy was approved by the FDA in 2021, according to Narang, it wasn’t readily available for most of last year, so people turned to Ozempic. According to the FDA’s Drug Shortage Database, Wegovy was undersupplied as of late March, but came back in stock earlier this year.
The social media buzz surrounding the two drugs boomed in early 2023. Celebrities shared their testimonials about how semaglutide helped them lose unwanted pounds. Elon Muskfor example, publicly partially credited Ozempic and Wegovy for his weight loss.
According to company analysis, #Ozempic and #Wegovy have been “extremely popular” on TikTok in recent months.
Using 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 have reportedly refused to cover Wegovy in the past, one calling it a “vanity drug.”
Both medications are intended for long-term use, not short-term weight loss. Their appetite-regulating effects wear off quickly after you stop taking them.
“This isn’t meant to be a drug to take off your last five or 10 pounds to get ready for an event or anything like that. It’s 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.”