A 36-year-old woman presents to your office for assistance with weight loss. She usually weighs around 150 lb, but she had two pregnancies in the past 4 years and has gained 70 lb. Her current weight is 220 lb with a body mass index (BMI) of 36.6, and she has been unable to lose any weight despite diet and exercise. She reports back pain and generalized fatigue but is primarily worried about developing type 2 diabetes, which runs in her family. Her insurance covers weight loss medications, but she is asking if she can take "Ozempic off-label" or "compounded semaglutide" instead because Wegovy isn't available at her local pharmacy.
More and more people are turning to "medical weight management" to drop pounds and improve their health. This is a strategy that adds pharmacotherapy to lifestyle modifications to treat the chronic disease of obesity, and it is analogous to the treatment of high blood pressure or high cholesterol with medications.
This patient meets the criteria set forth by the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and The Obesity Society for the management of obesity with antiobesity medications:
BMI ≥ 30 or BMI ≥ 27 with weight-related comorbidities and
Has been unable to achieve ≥ 5% weight loss with lifestyle changes alone
Several US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved antiobesity medications have been proven to cause clinically significant weight loss:
orlistat (Alli or Xenical)
liraglutide 3.0 mg subcutaneously daily (Saxenda)
semaglutide 2.4 mg subcutaneously weekly (Wegovy)
When considering an antiobesity medication for a patient, it's important to discuss efficacy, side-effect profile, contraindications, cost and coverage, and long-term use.
In this commentary, we'll specifically focus on semaglutide (Wegovy) as it is currently the most effective FDA-approved medication for weight loss.
In a phase 3 clinical trial, patients on semaglutide 2.4 mg weekly lost an average of 15% of their body weight at 68 weeks, or approximately 33 lb. It is important to note that there is variability in treatment response to semaglutide 2.4 mg, just like with any other medication. About 1 in 3 individuals lost ≥ 20% of their weight, but about 1 in every 10 patients did not lose any weight.
In this patient, who has a family history of type 2 diabetes, weight loss with semaglutide 2.4 mg will probably reduce her risk of developing diabetes. With just 5%-10% weight loss, she will see improvements in her blood glucose, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Even greater weight loss (≥ 10%) has been associated with resolution of fatty liver and sleep apnea.
Side effects can be managed with dietary modifications, over-the-counter treatments, and slow dose escalation. Some common tips include:
Eat a bland diet
Avoid fatty or fried foods
Avoid lying down immediately after eating
Prioritize water and fiber intake to mitigate constipation
Use over-the-counter treatments as needed (eg, laxative for constipation)
Most of these side effects are present only during dose escalation and resolve once the patient is on a stable dose.
Patients should be counseled about the less than 1% risk for gallbladder issues or pancreatitis. They should be instructed to go to an urgent care or emergency room if they develop severe abdominal pain, recurrent vomiting, or the inability to eat or drink.
We don't prescribe GLP-1 receptor agonists, including semaglutide 2.4 mg, in patients with a personal or family history of medullary thyroid cancer. GLP-1 agonists are contraindicated in patients with a history of pancreatitis or gastroparesis. All FDA-approved antiobesity medications are contraindicated in women who are breastfeeding or trying for pregnancy. If this patient would like to pursue pregnancy again, semaglutide 2.4 mg should be stopped 2 months prior to conception.
In this case, the patient's insurance covered semaglutide 2.4 mg with a copay of $25 per month. Without insurance, semaglutide 2.4 mg (Wegovy) costs about $1400 per month, and semaglutide 2.0 mg (Ozempic), the formulation approved for type 2 diabetes, costs up to $1000 per month. These price ranges are often cost-prohibitive and unsustainable, especially because these medications are intended for long-term use.
Currently, Medicare does not cover antiobesity medications nor do most state Medicaid plans. Therefore, these medications are usually not considered by patients who have Medicare or Medicaid insurance.
Because insurance coverage varies and out-of-pocket costs can be prohibitive, many individuals seek other ways of acquiring semaglutide. The off-label use of semaglutide 2.0 mg (Ozempic) for obesity is scientifically supported and safe, whereas the use of compounded semaglutide is risky due to lack of regulation.
Compounded semaglutide should be avoided, given that these products are not controlled by the FDA, and adverse events have been reported in connection with compounded semaglutide.
In our clinical practice, patients have reported advertisements for "generic semaglutide" compounded with vitamins like vitamin B12 or B6. This is a significant area of concern because some vitamins (eg, vitamin B6) are toxic at high doses.
We discussed the dangers of compounded semaglutide with our patient and told her that this isn't something we recommend prescribing. If the patient didn't want to wait for semaglutide 2.4 mg to be available at her pharmacy, we discussed alternative medications used for the management of obesity, such as other FDA-approved GLP-1 agonists (ie, liraglutide 3.0 mg) and off-label medications. In this case, the patient opted to wait for semaglutide 2.4 mg because she preferred a weekly injectable medication, given her busy lifestyle as a new mom.
Lead image: Novo Nordisk
Image 1: Sarah H. Schmitz, MD
Image 2: Michele Lee
Medscape Diabetes © 2023 WebMD, LLC
Any views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of WebMD or Medscape.
Cite this: When to Prescribe Semaglutide? - Medscape - Sep 29, 2023.