“Oh, oh, OH, oh-ZEM-pic … you knooow …” If you’ve found yourself mindlessly humming that ad-jingle take on the 1974 hit “Magic,” you’re probably aware of Ozempic, which has wended its way into the mainstream consciousness in recent years. The drug is advertised to lower risks for heart attack and stroke in adults who have both Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Ads with the song have flooded TV airwaves. Then late last year, a TikTok trend espousing Ozempic as a fast and easy way to trim tummies caused a worldwide shortage of the medication.
The scarcity was felt keenly in this region.
“All of a sudden I started seeing this shortage firsthand—not only for people who wanted to use it off-label for weight loss, but also for people who legitimately needed it to control their diabetes,” recalls Dr. Helena Rodbard, founder and medical director of Endocrine & Metabolic Consultants in Rockville and past president of the American College of Endocrinology.
“Many of my patients were quite upset, saying, ‘It’s not for vanity. We need to control our blood glucose levels, and we can’t get it,’ ” Rodbard says. “Over the last couple of months, though, the shortages seem to have been resolved.”
Manufactured by Novo Nordisk, the once-weekly injectable medication is part of a class of drugs known as GLP-1 receptor agonists, which help the body release insulin, reduce appetite and improve blood sugar control. The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug to treat Type 2 diabetes in 2017 but has yet to weigh in on using Ozempic for shedding pounds. Now Ozempic is being overprescribed, Rodbard says, with nonphysicians who have prescribing power authorizing its casual use for aesthetic reasons. The extent to which that is occurring around Bethesda is unknown, she says.
Rodbard recommends getting an evaluation and treatment from a physician with expertise in managing patients with obesity. “It doesn’t have to come from an endocrinologist,” she says. “It can even come from a primary care physician if that person has been trained in the treatment of overweight people.”
Ozempic is not inexpensive. A dose injected into the stomach, thigh or upper arm once weekly costs roughly $1,000 a month, an expense that may very well go on for months or years, according to Rodbard.
Ozempic “has to be started slowly at a low dose, then gradually increased depending on the response,” Rodbard says. “It’s not for everybody and shouldn’t be used indiscriminately.” Consistent medical supervision is important to ensure the drug is well tolerated. Lab tests often are administered to determine whether expected results are being realized.
Rodbard says mild side effects can include nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea and dehydration; more serious problems are very rare, but may include pancreatitis, thyroid tumors and gallbladder disease, among others.
Rodbard hopes the FDA eventually approves Ozempic for obesity, which then would spur insurance companies to provide reimbursement when using the drug for weight loss.
Meanwhile, the drug Mounjaro from Eli Lilly also is used by some to treat Type 2 diabetes and weight issues, and is being considered for fast-track approval by the FDA for obesity. Another Novo Nordisk drug, Wegovy, has been approved by the FDA for weight loss. There’s also Rebelsus, yet another drug produced by Novo Nordisk; that one is essentially Ozempic in pill, not injection, form, and shares the same active ingredient: semaglutide.
“The more resources we have to offer patients, the better,” Rodbard says. “Ultimately what’s important is enabling people to live a longer, higher-quality life.”
This story appears in the July/August issue of Bethesda Magazine.