Since the start of the year, the growth of Ozempic and other similar drugs has rapidly expanded.
The drugs were originally created as a form of long-term weight management for patients with diabetes. As word of the drug’s success continues to spread after testimonies from people like Sharon Osbourne, Amy Schumer, Tracy Morgan, and Anthony Anderson, the demand for GLP-1 drugs has only grown.
Driven by continuous news coverage, as well as word of mouth between friends and family, and social media, sales have soared in the U.S.
“Most people are not eager to seek out a new drug that is delivered via injection,” said Seth Charatz, DO, Medical Director of Endocrinology. “However, now that we see more people talking about these new weight loss drugs and their effects, a growing number of people seem to be okay with it.”
This particular group of drugs is approved by the FDA to help patients with type 2 diabetes as a form of long-term weight management. The drugs imitate a hormone in the stomach and intestines called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1). GLP-1 hormones influence parts of the brain that control appetite and food consumption by lowering glucose production from the liver and increasing the release of insulin from the pancreas.
Ozempic, Rybelsus, Wegoby, Mounjaro, and the newly approved Zepbound are all approved by the FDA and available to be prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider.
Common side effects for all of these drugs include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and constipation. There is also a slight increased risk of hypoglycemia – if used together with other diabetes drugs – as well as pancreatitis. These side effects are not only common, but also persistent enough for some patients to stop using the drugs altogether.
“These drugs are effective, but we need more time to understand their long-term safety implications,” said Dilendra Weerasinghe, MD, Director of Bariatrics Surgery at Rochester Regional Health.
As demand rises for GLP-1 medications, insurance companies are starting to crack down on eligibility requirements for coverage. While people with diabetes who have unsuccessfully used other methods for weight loss are more likely to receive approval, most insurance plans do not cover Ozempic, Wegovy, or other similar drugs.
As a result, patients are likely to pay $400-500 per month out of pocket for drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy. Newer drugs such as Zepbound cost roughly $1,000-1,500 out of pocket each month.
For diabetic patients, supplies of Wegovy is very limited across the country due to a surge in demand; other similar diabetes medications such as Trulicity, Bydureon, Mounjaro, or Victoza have slightly better availability but are still difficult to get.
“Even months after initial shortages, some patients with diabetes are still seeing limited availability,” Dr. Charatz said. “We encourage patients to call their pharmacy and ask what doses are available. Being consistent about taking these medications is good for your treatment.”
Many people are praising the effectiveness of GLP-1 medications that help patients lose 10-30 lbs. However, some issues are giving medical professionals pause.
Research suggests patients using GLP-1 medications will need to use them indefinitely to maintain weight loss. Going off Ozempic, Wegovy, or other similar drugs are particularly worrisome for patients with diabetes because it can lead to poor blood sugar control and increase the risk of diabetes complications.
Both healthcare providers and the FDA are also concerned about a practice called compounding. Compounding involves third parties getting GLP-1 drugs, then mixing in other ingredients such as vitamins or supplements to create medications that claim to achieve similar results but lack FDA approval.
The FDA has issued warnings against compounding semaglutide medications, saying they have received reports of patients having adverse events after taking these compounded medications.
At the same time, there are potential new uses for GLP-1 drugs beyond their initial intended purpose for long-term weight management for diabetic patients.
“This is an exciting time for diabetes and weight loss,” Dr. Charatz said. “Now that data is starting to come in, scientists and medical professionals understand how effective it is. This allows them to consider GLP-1 drugs as a potential solution for other health conditions.”
Dilendra Weerasinghe, MD, Director of Bariatrics Surgery at Rochester Regional Health, refers to GLP-1 drugs like Ozempic and Zepbound as ‘metabolic surgical mimetics’ – tools that can recreate the effects of metabolic surgery and help address obesity and diabetes.
“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with using GLP-1 drugs,” Dr. Weerasinghe said.
According to Dr. Weerasinghe, GLP-1 drugs should be used as an additional approach to obesity treatments – not the sole treatment.
“These are good drugs, but people need to fix their diets, regularly exercise, and make lifestyle changes,” Dr. Weerasinghe said. “Medication is not a replacement for poor lifestyle choices or a silver bullet. This is something to help people in the process.”
Sometimes a healthy diet and regular exercise are not enough for weight loss. Our bariatrics team will take the time to sit down with you and see what the next right action might be to improve your health.Learn More About Our Weight Loss Services