Ozempic, the type 2 diabetes treatment, has been unavailable for months as people without diabetes seek the drug for its most well-known side effect: weight loss.
The prescription drug, which patients inject themselves once a week, has gone viral on social media. Some users call it the “skinny pen” and share stories about shedding ozembic pounds.
This drug is so popular that it has created a cottage industry of people who want to get a prescription without seeing a healthcare provider in person. How easy is it to get one? Vicki Nguyen, NBC News’ chief consumer investigative reporter, decided to find out.
She and her team discovered more than a dozen telehealth websites advertising Ozempic for weight loss, including one that advertised that people could order a prescription for Ozempic online, with prescriptions available the same day.
Nguyen filled out a questionnaire about her height and weight, confirmed that she was seeking a prescription for Ozempic, paid a $69 consultation fee and submitted her application.
Within a few moments, the site had sent my application to a family nurse. We exchanged a few messages and I got my Ozempic prescription the next day. No one had ever seen or spoken to me, says Nguyen.
It was 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 has ever seen her on video or in person. A prescription was available in less than an hour.
Neither Nguyen nor its producer suffers from diabetes or obesity. They didn’t try to fill their Ozempic recipes.
Dr. Priya Jaisinghani, NYU Langone endocrinologist, clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and American Board of Obesity Medicine-certified physician, was concerned about how easy it was to get Ozempic prescriptions.
Jaisinghani notes that it is not appropriate for people without type 2 diabetes to receive a prescription for the drug. But she says she regularly treats patients who developed complications after being prescribed Ozempic from telehealth providers without any guidance.
Jaisinghani warns that they “did not receive proper counseling – whether it was about adverse reactions that could occur with the medication, whether it was those side effects like nausea and constipation with the medication, or even the dosages of the medication.”
“People should take the fact that this is a drug and it should be taken seriously.”
Goofy for the treatment of obesity
She advises people who need help with obesity to talk to their doctor about weight-loss medications like Wegovy. It contains semaglutide, the same active ingredient as Ozempic, and is approved by the FDA 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 act on the hunger centers in the brain to reduce appetite. The drug also slows 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 problems, according to the pharmaceutical giant that makes both Ozempic and Wegovy. Potential serious side effects include pancreatitis, gallbladder problems, kidney problems, and increased heart rate, among others, according to the manufacturer.
Jaisinghani believes there is 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 frenzy, that’s what they’re asking for or, in some cases, seeking prescriptions themselves.
Wegovy was also hard to come by last year, in part due to “unprecedented” demand, but the shortage ended in late 2022, according to Novo Nordisk,
The company says it recognizes that there is a growing trend of weight management telehealth providers, some of whom are advertising Ozempic off-label.
“Novo Nordisk does not provide these products directly 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 endorse or promote the use of our medicines outside of an approved FDA indication, whether through telehealth providers or otherwise.”
The weight can return if you stop taking the medication
Ozempic’s sister drug, Wegovy, is not intended for recreational or short-term use, so patients must be prepared to inject it weekly for a long period, possibly years.
People who took the drug in the largest placebo-controlled trial lost an average of 12% more of their body weight than those who took a placebo. But patients who stop taking the drug tend to regain two-thirds of the weight they previously lost, according to a 2021 study.
It’s also pricey, with a month’s supply of Wegovy costing about $1,349. Most insurance plans, including Medicare, do not cover Wegovy or any other anti-obesity medications. Ozempic’s list price is $892 for an injection pen, which usually contains a month’s worth of medication. Ozempic is more likely to be covered by insurance if the patient has type 2 diabetes.
One telehealth site Nguyen visited tried to sell the combination semaglutide, which was less expensive. Jaisinghani says these products should be avoided because they haven’t been fully studied and tested.
Meanwhile, some type 2 diabetics struggle to fill their Ozempic prescription. The FDA still lists the drug as “currently in short supply.”
“This is the only drug that has been successful in helping me treat my diabetes,” says Eva Sultana.
“I had to call near 50 pharmacies and say, ‘Hey, when is this available? Can you put me on the list?’
Novo Nordisk says it has invested $1.6 billion to expand capacity and address the shortfall at Ozempic.