Ozempic: Weight loss benefits, risks & misuse
A growing number of individuals are using medications designed for type 2 diabetes, such as Ozempic. Part of a class of diabetes medications called glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists, Ozempic can accelerate weight loss, but is not intended for use as a weight loss medication. Actual weight-loss drugs that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include Semaglutide (Wegovy), Setmelanotide (Imcivree) and Liraglutide (Saxenda), to name a few.
Ozempic prescriptions set records in 2023. The last week of February saw more than 373,000 Ozempic prescriptions filled in the United States, a J.P. Morgan analysis of IQVIA data found. This represents a 111% increase over the last 12 months.
Widespread misuse facilitated by social media promotion of GLP-1s has led to increased use for weight loss among those who are not actually considered obese and supply shortages .As of July 2023, Ozempic was listed in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Drug Shortages database.
While Ozempic has gained notoriety as a ‘quick fix’ for perceived weight problems, it is important to place its role in the context of positive health outcomes. Not everyone who uses Ozempic for weight loss actually loses weight. And without significant support for behavior modification, the weight loss is of short duration, and is followed by further weight gain. The challenge is for employers to incorporate access to pharmaceutical assisted weight loss into broader weight loss support programs.
Of the chronic conditions affecting Americans, obesity is one of the most prevalent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines obesity as the condition of having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. A person with severe obesity, meanwhile, has a BMI of 40 or higher. Between 1999 and 2020, the rate of U.S. adult obesity climbed from 30.5% to 41.9%, while the rate of severe obesity climbed from 4.7% to 9.2%.
Obesity costs the U.S. health system roughly $173 billion a year. This price tag includes doctor’s visits and hospital stays resulting from excess surgeries for back and joint conditions, as well as prescription medications, among other expenses.
The condition introduces more immediate costs for employers, including those related to missed days of work, decreased productivity, disability, and premature death. In the United States, productivity costs for absenteeism related to obesity can reach $6.38 billion a year. That’s $132 per individual diagnosed with obesity.
The costs of obesity are significant on their own. Still, they fall short of those arising from diabetes and cardiovascular disease, driven in large part by the expense of medications. Diabetes costs the U.S. health system about $327 billion a year – including both health system costs and lost productivity. Heart disease and stroke cost about $219 billion a year.
People with obesity are at greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes, as well as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. All are risk factors for heart disease. Cardiodiabesity – the triple diagnosis of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity – is becoming more and more common.
Addressing obesity can be a challenge, in part because it has many causes. Patterns of eating, physical activity, and sleep play a role, as can social determinants of health (SDOH), medications, and other factors.
Employers can help by giving people the tools they need to achieve heathier BMIs. The health plan should do the following:
- Provide client-specific insights based on clinical and financial performance.
- Identify interventions to improve outcomes and reduce pharmacy costs.
- Close care gaps related to cardiodiabesity conditions.
Health plans should not only encourage exercise and healthy eating, but also recognize obesity as a chronic condition that needs ongoing attention.