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Rising Interest in Weight-Loss Meds Despite Cost, Side Effects

May 5, 2023 — Aryn Thirp, a 35-year-old mother and blogger from South Jordan, UT, knew something had to change last year when she saw the numbers in her lab results: her cholesterol and triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood, were both twice as high as they should have been. 

Thirp has hormonal imbalances caused by polycystic ovarian syndrome, which caused other weight loss efforts to be ineffective. 

“I thought, ‘OK, this is it. I’m going for it,’” she said. “Those labs really made me panic.”

In April 2022, Thirp started on a weight loss injection called Wegovy, in the same drug class as Ozempic. The drug has gone from obscurity to popularity, thanks to social media and celebrities. By the time she stopped the injections in February,  her cholesterol had dropped 188 points and her triglycerides, 186 points, and she lost 78 pounds.

Thirp is part of a growing number of people turning to anti-obesity injections. Interest in these treatments is soaring among people living with obesity despite the lack of public awareness just a handful of months ago, according to a new survey from the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC) and telehealth company Ro. 

Two-thirds (68%) of people with obesity who were surveyed have heard of at least one medication in the same class as Ozempic, and 60% were interested in seeking treatment.

“This is the first time we’ve had the chance to examine attitudes toward anti-obesity medications,” said Beverly Tchang, MD, an endocrinologist and assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, who also serves as a Ro advisor. “We’re finding people are very open to using them, especially after trying other methods. It’s a new set of tools that can be offered.”

Of the 1,022 participants, 53% reported a body mass index, or BMI, over 30. (BMI is based off your height and weight. It’s one way to determine if you’re at a healthy weight, as it measures how healthy your weight is compared to how tall you are. A BMI 30 or over is considered in the obesity range.)  

Thirty-six percent of participants living with obesity said they would work two jobs to afford weight loss medication, and 59% said they would be willing to be on a lifelong medication regimen to maintain their ideal weight. 

Ozempic’s active ingredient, semaglutide, mimics the role of a natural hormone called glucagon-like peptide, or GLP-1, which helps create a sense of fullness. While the drug was created to treat type 2 diabetes, it is commonly used off-label to treat obesity. Wegovy, another GLP-1, is the only medication in the class that is approved specifically for weight loss.

Of the participants interested in GLP-1 drugs, 95% have tried at least once in the past 5 years to lose weight. Thirty-five percent have tried five to 10 times, and 34% tried 10 or more times. 

“There are individuals who are frustrated and up until now they haven’t had options other than lifestyle changes and surgery,” Tchang said.

But the medications come with potential side effects, a concern for 31% of respondents interested in GLP-1 medications. (Thirp, a mother of four, experienced intense fatigue that forced her to lie down every hour.)

They also come with hefty price tags and often are not covered by insurance. Thirty-two percent of respondents said they weren’t sure if insurance would cover the costs, and 26% said they are too expensive. 

Over the course of her treatment, Thirp spent over $8,000 on the injections, none of which was paid for by insurance despite having a medical condition linked to weight gain.

Ethan Lazarus, MD, former president of the Obesity Medicine Association and obesity medicine physician in Greenwood Village, CO,  said GLP-1s work to block hunger in a way that has been compared to wearing headphones near a screaming child on an airplane.

“They just don’t feel like eating,” Lazarus said. “Or they crave protein.”

The drugs also could help to destigmatize obesity by highlighting the processes behind hunger, shifting the conversation from blame to biology, Lazarus said – something he said is sorely needed in the medical field. 

Discrimination in health care settings was also highlighted in the survey, with a third of participants who had felt judged by health care providers for their weight. Forty-nine percent said they had been teased, treated unfairly, or discriminated against in health care settings.

“Doctors don’t accept that obesity is a disease state and continue to believe it’s a fault-based disease, caused by eating too much and moving too little,” Lazarus said. “I think that’s changing with the acceptance that it’s a disease with a hormonal underpinning.” 

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