Ozempic, the Type 2 diabetes treatment, has been in short supply for months as people who aren’t diabetic seek the drug for its most famous side effect: weight loss.
The prescription medication, which patients self-inject once a week, is trending on social media. Some users call it “the skinny pen” and swap stories about shedding pounds with Ozempic.
The drug is so trendy that it has created a cottage industry for people who want to get a prescription without ever seeing a healthcare provider in person. How easy is it to get one? NBC News Senior Consumer Investigative Reporter Vicky Nguyen decided to find out.
She and her team discovered more than a dozen telehealth websites advertising Ozempic for weight loss, including one that announced people could request an Ozempic online prescription, with same-day prescriptions available.
Nguyen filled out a questionnaire with her height and weight, confirmed she was seeking an Ozempic prescription, paid a $69 consultation fee and submitted her request.
“Within a few moments, the website forwarded my request to a family nurse practitioner. We exchanged a few messages and I had my Ozempic prescription by the very next day. No one ever saw or spoke to me,” Nguyen says.
It was even easier for her producer who tried another website. She paid $75, filled out a questionnaire and spent two minutes on the phone with a doctor. No one ever saw her on video or in person. A prescription was available in less than an hour.
Neither Nguyen or her producer has diabetes or obesity. They didn’t try to get their Ozempic prescriptions filled.
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Dr. Priya Jaisinghani, an endocrinologist at NYU Langone, clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and a physician certified with the American Board of Obesity Medicine, was alarmed by how easily the Ozempic prescriptions could be obtained.
It’s not appropriate for people without Type 2 diabetes to receive a prescription for the drug, Jaisinghani notes. But she says she regularly treats patients who suffered complications after they were prescribed Ozempic from telehealth providers without any guidance.
“They haven’t had appropriate counseling — whether that’s on the adverse reactions you can have with the medication, whether that’s side effects such as nausea and constipation with the medication, or even dosing of the medication,” Jaisinghani warns.
“People need to take the fact that this is a medication and it should be taken very seriously.”
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Wegovy for obesity treatment
People who need help treating obesity should talk to their doctor about weight-loss drugs such as Wegovy, she advises. It contains semaglutide, the same active ingredient as Ozempic, and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for weight loss in people with obesity or weight-related health problems. The difference is the dosing device, Jaisinghani says.
Semaglutide is in a class of drugs that work in the brain’s hunger centers to curb appetite. The medication also slows down stomach emptying, so patients are satisfied with smaller portions and feel less hungry overall.
Common side effects include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain and other gastrointestinal issues, according to the pharmaceutical giant that makes both Ozempic and Wegovy. Possible serious side effects include pancreatitis, gallbladder problems, kidney problems and increased heart rate, among other issues, according to the manufacturer.
Jaisinghani believes there’s a lot of misinformation and lack of awareness about drugs like Wegovy even within the medical community. And since patients have only heard of Ozempic because of the social media craze, that’s what they’re asking for or, in some cases, seeking prescriptions on their own.
Wegovy was also difficult to obtain last year, partly due to “unprecedented” demand, but the shortage ended in late 2022, according to Novo Nordisk,
The company says it’s aware there is a growing trend of weight-management telehealth providers, some of whom are advertising Ozempic off-label.
“Novo Nordisk does not directly supply these products to any telehealth providers, and we cannot prevent physicians who treat patients via telehealth from prescribing medications that are then filled by pharmacies,” the company said in a statement.
“Novo Nordisk does not support or promote the use of our medicines outside of the FDA approved indication, whether by telehealth providers or otherwise.”
Weight can return if you stop taking the drug
Wegovy, Ozempic’s sister drug, is not meant for recreational or short-term use, so patients have to be ready to inject it weekly for the long-term, potentially for years.
People who took the drug in the largest placebo-controlled trial lost an average of 12% of their body weight compared to those who received a placebo. But patients who stop taking the drug tend regain two-thirds of their prior weight loss, according to a 2021 study.
It’s also expensive, with a month’s supply of Wegovy costing about $1,349. The majority of insurance plans, including Medicare, don’t cover Wegovy or any other anti-obesity drugs. The list price of Ozempic is $892 per injector pen, which usually contains a month’s worth of medication. Ozempic is more likely to be covered by insurance if a patient has Type 2 diabetes.
One of the telehealth websites Nguyen visited tried to sell her compounded semaglutide, which was less expensive. Jaisinghani says those products should be avoided because they have not been fully studied and tested.
Meanwhile, some patients with Type 2 diabetes are struggling to fill their Ozempic prescription. The FDA still lists the drug as "currently in shortage."
“This is the only medication that has successfully been able to help me treat my diabetes,” says Eva Sultana.
“I had to call close to 50 pharmacies and say, ‘Hey, when this is available? Can you put me on the list?’ And I mentioned I am a diabetic, I’m taking this for diabetes. It took almost more than two months for me to be able to find my dose.”
Novo Nordisk says it has invested $1.6 billion to expand capacity and address the Ozempic shortage.