Telemedicine and social media are playing a significant role in boosting demand for Ozempic, a prescription drug for type 2 diabetes, experts told CNN. The current shortage of drugs is limiting access for diabetic patients who rely on them to control their blood sugar levels.
Digital health companies are making it easy to get medicines like Ozempic by providing online prescriptions. Many advertise quick and easy access—sometimes same day—access.
“Oddly enough, getting a cure is almost easier [via digital health companies]said Dr. Disha Narang, endocrinologist and director of obesity treatment at Northwestern Medicine, Lake Forest Hospital. “But not always the safest.” People who reported average weight on online admission forms were still offered an anti-diabetic drug, Narang told CNN.
Partly because of the popularity of Ozempic, the market for prescription weight loss drugs has grown significantly, according to MarketData Enterprises, an independent research and consulting firm. The market has outperformed forecasters’ expectations for 2022 and is expected to be a nearly $2 billion industry by 2023.
WeightWatchers is also tapping into the field of prescription telemedicine. Last week, the company bought a subscription to a telemedicine service that helps patients connect with doctors who can prescribe weight loss and diabetes medications.
“At the beginning of 2022, these companies were not marketing this material,” Narang said, noting that Ozempic advertising began in 2022. “I think we really need to start questioning our ethics in this regard.”
When it comes to the application processes for digital healthcare companies, there are a few general requirements, says Dr. Bree Holtz, an assistant professor of telemedicine at Michigan State University, told CNN. Once the patient completes the required online forms, the information is passed to the in-state provider, who can write the prescription. Some companies require the patient to switch to a video or phone call with a provider – others require neither.
“It’s a little scary that you can just wake up and make an appointment – or these medications – and you won’t be taken care of,” Holtz said.
Telehealth has been a game changer in providing access to healthcare, especially during a pandemic. And especially for people living in places where high-quality primary care isn’t available, direct consumer telehealth services can help fill the gap, the doctor said. Lori Buis is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on digital health.
However, when patients start seeking selective treatment from select providers, Buijs says it opens the door for issues such as fragmented care or abuse. Telehealth providers may not have access to a patient’s complete medical history and may be less able to provide comprehensive care than a primary care physician would otherwise be able to.
“I have no doubt that some of these services are doing their job well,” Buijs said. “There are also services that don’t take it that seriously. And that worries.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first announced a shortage of Ozempic last August. Supplies are likely to be overloaded until mid-March, according to the FDA drug shortage database.
According to a JP Morgan analysis, Ozempic prescriptions in the US reached an all-time high in the last week of February, with more than 373,000 prescriptions filled. IQVIA Data shared with CNN. This is 111% more than the same week in 2022.
According to a CNN review of JP Morgan’s analysis, more than half of these were new prescriptions.
With so many patients relying on Ozempic for their diabetes, providers like Narang struggle to figure out which alternatives to prescribe to their patients.
“We receive daily reports that patients cannot get their own medicines,” Narang said. “It’s been tough for both patients and providers.”
According to a JP Morgan analysis, Ozempic currently holds over 40% market share in the US for glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists, a class of drugs that mimic the appetite-regulating hormone. These drugs work by stimulating the release of insulin, which helps lower blood sugar levels. They also slow down the passage of food through the intestines.
Ozempic has grown rapidly in popularity since it was first introduced to the market in 2018. The drug has been used safely and successfully to help diabetics lower their blood sugar levels and achieve diabetes remission, Narang told CNN. According to her, Ozempic is the most powerful of all GLP-1 drugs.
Behind the Ozempic brand is the drug semaglutide. While Ozempic is used primarily to treat type 2 diabetes, another drug called Wegovy – also semaglutide – is approved specifically for chronic weight management.
Although FDA approved in 2021For most of last year, Wegovy was unavailable, Narang said, so people turned to Ozempic. According to the FDA drug shortage databaseWegovy has been in short supply since the end of March last year, but was back in stock earlier this year.
The social media hype around these two drugs picked up in early 2023. Celebrities shared their testimonies of how semaglutide helped them shed those extra pounds. Elon Muskfor example, publicly credited Ozempic and Wegovy in part for his weight loss.
#Ozempic and #Wegovy have been “extremely popular” on TikTok over the past few months. according to company analytics.
The use of Ozempic and Wegovy for short-term weight loss has had real implications for patients who need drugs for diabetes and chronic weight management, Narang says. For example, some insurance companies have reportedly refused to cover Wegovy in the past, some call it the “vanity drug”.
Both drugs are intended for long-term use, not for short-term weight loss. Their appetite-regulating effects disappear quickly after you stop taking them.
“It’s not a cure to shed the last 5 or 10 pounds to get ready for an event or something like that. It’s not for use within three or four weeks, Narang said. “When we think about weight management, we think about the next 25 years of someone’s life.”