Experts weigh in on recent trends regarding weight loss medication and how they expect those trends to evolve in the coming year.
Pharmaceutical Executive’s 2023 annual pipeline report1 examining trends in the drug development pipeline noted that weight loss drugs gained momentum in recent years. This is due to a variety of reasons, including popular marketing strategies involving celebrities and influencers. At the time, it was noted that over 350 weight loss drugs were development.
For the coming year, experts believe that weight loss drugs will continue similar trends. However, while researchers are making significant advancements with these drugs, there are still hurdles that patients and consumers must jump over in order to actually obtain the medication.
“The conversation around weight loss drugs will continue to take center stage in 2024, particularly when it comes to accessibility and affordability,” says Jayne Hornung, chief clinical officer at MMIT. “Interest in prescription weight loss medications traditionally used to help manage diabetes has skyrocketed over the past year, thanks to hefty promotion from celebrities and influencers and clinical trial results demonstrating their effectiveness. Growing research also indicates that by treating obesity, these drugs have the potential to minimize other health risks such as heart disease, kidney disease, and more.”
“However,” she continues, “this increased popularity is also raising questions about inequities in access. As obesity drugs aren’t currently covered by Medicare and have minimal coverage through Medicaid and most private insurance companies, many patients who really need the medication can’t access it. Throughout the next year, we can expect to see growing pressure on insurers to cover the cost of obesity medications.”
Scott Morano, senior vice president at Ipsos, notes similar trends. He also points out that one of the major issues surrounding these drugs is access.
“One of the biggest issues we see in the coming year is whether supply can catch up to demand,” he says. “Can these drugs actually be on the shelf? Until such a time, there are more people wanting the drugs than there is product available for them.”
He notes that Wegovy, except at its highest dosage, is on the FDA’s shortage list. This makes it harder for doctors to start new patients, as even getting them access to the highest dosage is a struggle. Typically, doctors prefer to start patients at lower dosages to avoid complications due to tolerability and other side effects.
Unfortunately, off-label drugs for weight loss, are typically easier to find, according to Morano. This includes the popular medication Ozempic, a Type 2 Diabetes medication which is not approved for weight loss. It does contain similar ingredients as Wegovy, at smaller doses, and has become popular due to its use among celebrities.
These issues aren’t the only problems weight loss drugs face when it comes to accessibility, however.
“The other side is based on the more traditional access, which is the insurance coverage,” Morano says. “Obesity isn’t treated the same way as diabetes, heart disease, or even allergies. It’s not necessarily covered by most insurance plans. Some news sources have suggested that 40-60% of employer-based plans cover obesity-based medications, which means that many consumers still don’t have insurance coverage for AOMS, which means that the out-of-pocket cost makes them inaccessible to most Americans still.”
A major change for weight-loss drugs has been how the public perceives them. The American public considers obesity to one of the country’s most significant health problems and it is being recognized as a disease.
Along with that, Americans are becoming more aware of anti-obesity medications (AOMs) and conversations about them are becoming more common.
Morano says, “In the past year we’ve seen a real boom in awareness of AOMs among the public. There wasn’t a lot of online, social conversation about Ozempic or other GLP-1s until late 2022, which is when we started to see the over ten-fold growth in online conversations that is happening now.
We also see that Americans are aware that there are new medicines that treat obesity. People know what these drugs are and have heard of them. We also know that Americans disapprove of what they would see as misuse of these medications. We saw a majority of Americans disapprove of people who aren’t obese or have type II diabetes using weight loss medications.”
Morano and Hornung both expect AOMs to continue to gain in popularity and awareness in the coming year. The main issues concerning these drugs at the moment are related to accessibility, and the conversations around these drugs will likely focus on those issues.