Ozempic, the diabetes treatment for type 2, has been in short supply for months as people who don’t have diabetes seek the drug for its most well-known side effect: weight loss.
The prescription drug, which patients inject themselves once a week, is trending on social media. Some users call it “the skinny pen” and trade stories of 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 promoting Ozempic for weight loss, including one that announced that people could request an Ozempic prescription online, with same-day prescriptions available.
Nguyen filled out a questionnaire detailing her height and weight, confirmed she was looking for an Ozempic prescription, paid a $69 consultation fee, and submitted her request.
“Within a few moments, the website forwarded my request to a GP. We exchanged a few messages and I received my Ozempic prescription the very next day. No one has ever seen or spoken to me,” says Nguyen.
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 has ever seen her on video or in person. A prescription was available in less than an hour.
Neither Nguyen nor her producer has diabetes or obesity. They weren’t trying to get their Ozempic recipes filled.
Dr. Priya Jaisinghani, an endocrinologist at NYU Langone, clinical assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and a physician board-certified by the American Board of Obesity Medicine, was alarmed by the ease with which Ozempic prescriptions could be obtained.
It’s not appropriate for people without type 2 diabetes to get a prescription for the drug, Jaisinghani notes. But she says she regularly treats patients who have had complications after receiving Ozempic from telehealth providers without any guidance.
“They haven’t had proper guidance — whether it’s the side effects you can have with the medication, whether that’s side effects like nausea and constipation with the medication, or even the dosage of the medication,” warns Jaisinghani.
“People need to take the fact that this is a drug and it should be taken very seriously.”
Wegovy for the treatment of obesity
People who need help treating obesity should talk to their doctor about weight-loss drugs like Wegovy, she advises. It contains semaglutide, the same active ingredient as Ozempic, and is 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, says Jaisinghani.
Semaglutide is in a class of drugs that work in the hunger centers of the brain to curb appetite. The drug also slows stomach emptying, so patients are content 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. Potential serious side effects include pancreatitis, gallbladder problems, kidney problems and increased heart rate, 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 craze, that’s what they’re asking for or, in some cases, looking for prescriptions on their own.
Wegovy was also hard to come by last year, partly due to “unprecedented” demand, but the shortage ended at the end of 2022, according to Novo Nordisk.
The company says it is aware of a growing trend of telehealth providers for weight management, some of whom are promoting Ozempic off-label.
“Novo Nordisk does not supply these products directly to telehealth providers, and we cannot prevent physicians treating 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 medications outside of the FDA-approved indication, whether by telehealth providers or otherwise.”
Weight may return when you stop taking the drug
Wegovy, Ozempic’s sister drug, is not intended for recreational or short-term use, so patients should be ready to inject it weekly for the long term, possibly years.
People taking the drug in the largest placebo-controlled study lost an average of 12% of their body weight compared to those given a placebo. But according to a 2021 study, patients who stop taking the drug usually regain two-thirds of their previous weight loss.
It’s also expensive, with a month’s supply of Wegovy costing around $1,349. Most insurance plans, including Medicare, do not cover Wegovy or other obesity medications. Ozempic’s list price is $892 per injector pen, which usually includes 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 compound semaglutide, which was cheaper. Jaisinghani says those products should be avoided because they have not been fully studied and tested.
Meanwhile, some patients with type 2 diabetes 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 able to successfully help me manage my diabetes,” says Eva Sultana.
“I had to call almost 50 pharmacies and say, ‘Hey, when will this be available? Can you put me on the list?’ And I said I’m a diabetic, I take this for diabetes. It took me almost two months to find my dose.”
Novo Nordisk says it has invested $1.6 billion to expand capacity and address the Ozempic shortfall.