Telehealth and social media play a significant role in increasing demand for the prescription drug Ozempic, which treats type 2 diabetes, experts told CNN. The current shortage of the drug has limited access for diabetics who rely on it for blood sugar control.
Digital health companies are making drugs like Ozempic more accessible by offering prescriptions online. Many advertise quick and easy – sometimes same day – access.
“Anecdotally, it’s almost easier to get 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.” On average, people who printed out the online intake forms were still being offered diabetes medication, 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 exceeded forecasters’ expectations for 2022 and is expected to become a nearly $2 billion industry by 2023.
WeightWatchers also takes advantage of the telehealth prescription drug space. Last week, the company acquired telehealth service Sequence, which helps connect patients with doctors who can prescribe diet and diabetes drugs.
“At the beginning of 2022, these companies weren’t marketing this stuff,” Narang said, noting that advertising around Ozempic took off in 2022. “I think we really have to start questioning our ethics on this.”
There are few general requirements for onboarding processes for digital health companies, Dr. Bree Holtz, assistant professor of telemedicine at Michigan State University, told CNN. When a patient fills out the required forms online, the information is transferred to a government provider who can write a prescription. Some companies require the patient to participate in a video or phone call with the provider – others do not either.
“It’s a little scary that you can just wake up and have these appointments — or these medications — and not be taken care of,” Holtz said.
Remote health has changed the availability of healthcare, especially during the pandemic. And especially for people who live in places where quality primary care isn’t available, direct-to-consumer telehealth services can help fill the gap, said Dr. Laurie Buis, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine. focuses on digital health.
When patients start seeking selective care from select providers, Buis says it opens the door to problems such as fragmented care or abuse. Telehealth providers may not have access to a patient’s entire medical history and may not be able to provide the comprehensive care that a primary care physician otherwise could.
“I have no doubt that some of these services are doing a good job,” said Buis. “There are also services that don’t take it so seriously. And that’s worrying.”
The US Food and Drug Administration first reported a shortage of Ozempic last August. According to the FDA’s drug shortage database, supply is likely to be tight until mid-March.
Ozempic prescriptions in the U.S. 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’s a 111% increase compared to the same week in 2022.
According to CNN’s review of JP Morgan’s analysis, more than half of these were new prescriptions.
With so many patients relying on Ozempic to treat diabetes, providers like Narang are looking for alternatives for their patients.
“We get messages every day that patients can’t get their own medicine,” Narang said. “It’s been difficult for both patients and providers.”
According to an analysis by JP Morgan, Ozempic currently has more than 40% of the US market share in the class of glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists – drugs that mimic the appetite-regulating hormone. These drugs stimulate the release of insulin, which helps lower blood sugar. They also slow down the passage of food through the intestines.
Ozempic’s popularity has grown rapidly since it was first introduced to the market in 2018. The drug has been used safely and successfully to help people with diabetes improve blood sugar levels and put their diabetes into remission, Narang told CNN. Ozempic is the most effective of all the GLP-1 drugs, he said.
Behind the Ozempic brand is 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.
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 had been in short supply since the end of last March, but was back in stock earlier this year.
The social media buzz around these two drugs started in early 2023. Celebrities shared how semaglutide helped them shed unwanted pounds. Elon Muskfor example, Ozempic and Wegovy were publicly credited in part for his weight loss.
#Ozempic and #Wegovy have been “very popular” in recent months on TikTok, according to the company’s analytics.
The use of Ozempic and Wegovy for short-term weight loss has led to real results for patients who need the drugs most for diabetes and chronic weight management, Narang said. For example, some insurance companies have previously refused to cover Wegovy, 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 when you stop using them.
“This is not meant to be a drug to take off the last five or 10 pounds to prepare for an event or something. It’s not meant to be used for three or four weeks,” Narang said. “When we think about weight management, we think about someone’s life for the next 25 years.”