(CNN) — Telehealth and social media are playing a significant 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.
Digital health companies make medications 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 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 put in average weights on the online intake forms were still offered the antidiabetic drug, Narang told CNN.
In part because of Ozempic's popularity, the prescription weight loss drug market has grown significantly, according to MarketData Enterprises, an independent market research and consulting firm. The market surpassed forecasters' expectations for 2022 and is expected to become a nearly $2 billion industry in 2023.
WeightWatchers is also tapping into the telehealth prescription drug space. Last week, the company bought telehealth subscription service Sequence, which helps connect patients to doctors who can prescribe weight loss and diabetes drugs.
"At the start of 2022, these companies weren't marketing this stuff," Narang said, noting advertising around Ozempic took off in 2022. "I think we really need to start questioning our ethics around this."
There are few across-the-board requirements when it comes to digital health companies' intake processes, Dr. Bree Holtz, an associate professor at Michigan State University studying telemedicine, told CNN. Once a patient fills out the required forms online, information gets transferred to an in-state provider who can write the prescription. Some companies require that the patient hop on a video or phone call with the provider — others don't require either.
"It's a little scary that you can just wake up and get these appointments in — or these pharmaceuticals — and you're not being cared for," said Holtz.
Telehealth has been a game changer in providing access to health care, particularly during the pandemic. And especially for people living in places where high-quality primary care is not available, direct to consumer telehealth services can help fill a gap, said Dr. Laurie Buis, associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan, whose research focuses on digital health.
When patients begin to seek selective treatment from selective providers, however, Buis says it opens the door to problems like 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 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 quite as seriously. And that's of concern."
Ozempic's rise in popularity
The US Food and Drug Administration first announced that Ozempic was in shortage last August. Supply will likely be strained through mid-March, according to the FDA drug shortages database.
Ozempic prescriptions in the US reached an all-time high in the last week of February, with over 373,000 prescriptions filled, according to a J.P. Morgan analysis of IQVIA data shared with CNN. That's an increase of 111 percent, compared with the same week in 2022.
Of these, more than half were new prescriptions, according to a CNN review of J.P. Morgan's analysis.
With many patients relying on Ozempic for diabetes treatment, providers like Narang are scrambling to figure out what alternatives to put their patients on.
"We're getting messages daily about patients not being able to get their own medication," Narang said. "It's been tough for patients and providers alike."
Ozempic currently holds more than 40 percent 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 from J.P. Morgan. These drugs work by stimulating the release of insulin, which helps lower blood sugar. They also slow the passage of food through the gut.
Ozempic has grown quickly in popularity since it was first put on the market in 2018. The drug has safely and successfully been 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 medications, she said.
Behind the brand name Ozempic is the medication semaglutide. While Ozempic is used primarily to treat Type 2 diabetes, another drug by the name Wegovy — also semaglutide — is approved specifically for chronic weight management.
Although approved by the FDA in 2021, Wegovy was not readily available through most of last year, according to Narang, so people turned to Ozempic. According to the FDA drug shortages database, Wegovy was undersupplied starting at the end of last March but came back in stock earlier this year.
Social media buzz around the two drugs took off at the start of 2023. Celebrities shared their testimonies about how semaglutide helped them shed unwanted pounds. Elon Musk, for example, publicly credited Ozempic and Wegovy in part for his weight loss.
#Ozempic and #Wegovy have been "extremely popular" over the last few months on TikTok, according to company 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, said Narang. For example, some insurance companies in the past have reportedly refused to cover Wegovy, 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 after you stop taking them.
"This is not meant to be a medication to take off your last five or 10 pounds to get ready for an event or something like that. It's not for use of three or four weeks," Narang said. "When we think about weight management, we're thinking about the next 25 years of someone's life."
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