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Weight loss drugs like Ozempic are giving DTC telemedicine platforms a boost

Weight loss drugs like Ozempic — which, before the last couple of years, were typically used to treat diabetes — have taken the cultural zeitgeist by storm. It’s no surprise then that DTC telemedicine startups have quickly embraced this class of drugs.

U.S. health providers wrote 9 million Ozempic and Wegovy prescriptions by the end of 2022, experiencing a 300% growth in just three years. Today, it’s estimated that about 7% of U.S. adults are using some type of GLP-1 drug. The drugs’ quick explosion in popularity even has food and beverage conglomerates reconsidering their products to cater to people on GLP-1s. 

At this point, experts say these drugs are here to stay — and telehealth startups are adapting to capture demand that has spilled over from doctors’ offices, offering treatment for a monthly fee. Telemedicine startups like Ro, Calibrate, Found, Everlywell and Hims & Hers have all launched weight loss management programs in the last couple of years, with some offering compounded semaglutide Ozempic as part of the treatment.

Now, there’s a growing discussion around how to ethically market and prescribe these drugs, as well as how to make them accessible. Without insurance coverage, these drugs are primarily accessible to the rich who can afford to drop thousands of dollars a month on injection dosages. With regulators cracking down on copycat drugs sold through compounding pharmacies, the future of the telehealth weight loss treatment landscape is starting to shape up.

A gold rush to capture demand

These startups are also attracting investors. Weight management platform Calibrate launched in 2020, and has raised about $127 million in venture money to date, with its annual revenue hitting $21 million in 2021 revenue. Telehealth platform Ro, founded in 2017, launched a weight loss program in 2020 and added GLP-1 prescriptions in 2023. Ro last raised $150 million from existing investors in 2022, bringing its valuation to a reported $7 billion.

Some experts say that while wider access to these drugs is a good thing, it can quickly become a destination for injectables for anyone willing to pay — even those who don’t medically need it. One of the growing concerns over purchasing GLP-1 injectables online is that many of these offerings tend to be compounded medications containing semaglutide, and not official dosages by Novo Nordisk, the parent company of Ozempic and Wegovy. 

Then there is the marketing aspect, with telehealth platforms using the brand names in their advertising. Last June, Novo Nordisk announced that it’s starting to take legal action against medical spas and weight-loss clinics that are compounding its drugs due to trademark infringement. The DTC marketing tactics of these digital services have also been criticized in the media, especially for campaigns that specifically promote brand name semaglutide drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy. 

Brooke Boyarsky Pratt, co-founder of Knownwell, a startup that offers hybrid weight-loss treatments through in-person clinics and telehealth, said that the ethics of drug marketing have always been an open question. But promoting GLP-1 in particular can have larger ramifications due to the widespread national interest thanks to their use by celebrities and social media influencers documenting their journey.

Knownwell, which launched in January 2023 and raised a total of $24.5 million, offers coaching by registered dieticians and GLP-1 prescriptions for patients who qualify and are approved through insurance.

Pratt said the company is trying to emphasize long-term care instead of writing one-off Ozempic prescriptions; 91% of Knownwell’s starting population has stayed engaged with the company, either through a scheduled appointment or having had an appointment in the past 12 months. 

“The positive of the increase of these companies is the access, and it’s great that there are more avenues for patients to go,” Pratt said. However, she said, it’s still unclear what the long-term impact will be for DTC players offering obesity treatment, given that many of these companies have an out-of-pocket self-pay system. 

The pricing structure varies significantly depending on the company, which could limit the amount of patients who can take advantage of this treatment. Calibrate accepts insurance but has a $1,749 one-time payment for onboarding patients. Everlywell does not currently accept insurance and charges $99 a month for its program and between $900 and $1,400 for a monthly injection supply.

Ro, meanwhile, charges $99 for the first month’s appointment and $145 thereafter in addition to the medication cost. According to a company spokesperson, Ro’s Body program is now one of the fastest-growing offerings on the platform, with many patients coming to Ro after already trying other methods to lose weight. 

Ro also touts the convenience of its virtual treatment. “Many patients have run into barriers in seeking help for weight management in traditional health care settings due to things like stigma against obesity or getting stuck in the complex insurance process, they see us as a valuable resource and support system in their weight loss journey,” the spokesperson said.

However, players like Ro and Calibrate do have a concierge team that works with insurance providers to get patients approved. Since the Body program’s launch, Ro has expanded its benefits verification and prior authorization support. Otherwise, the company said the cost of a one-month supply of Ozempic without insurance is about $935.77. 

Pratt added that Knownwell is starting to see people coming in already with side effects from starting on GLP-1s elsewhere online. In some cases, these clients were unable to get a hold of their care team through an app. “There is also the chance that patients are hopping from doctor to doctor,” she said, which is an overall concern in health care of people going from one doctor to another until they find one to prescribe them the drugs they’re after.  

George Jones, COO at Upscript, which provides telemedicine services for pharmaceutical companies, said the pandemic pushed a lot of health care systems and direct-to-consumer players to build out online-focused infrastructure. “And this GLP-1 craze has added fuel to the fire,” Jones said.

While health care regulators are still working out rules, Jones said that the crackdown on trademark infringement is the fastest way for manufacturers like Novo Nordisk to go after copycats. At the same time, Jones said, more options that include generic drugs are being developed, which should help bring the price down and make it more affordable for patients. Moreover, the growing coverage of GLP-1 drugs by Medicare is also expected to help meet demand. 

Telehealth weight loss here to stay

More telemedicine startups are also jumping to offer weight loss treatments. Most recently, Hims & Hers launched its own program. It doesn’t offer GLP-1-based treatment yet, but instead focuses on a holistic approach that includes educational tools and treatment through established medications known to help with weight loss, such as Bupropion, Metformin, Naltrexone and Topiramate combined with Vitamin B12.

When the program rolled out in December, CEO Andrew Dudum told Fast Company the platform would eventually offer injectables like Ozempic and Wegovy, “when there is a really high quality understanding of their supply chains, when and how they should be used.”

“We’re just in the early days of those medicines, and of having solid answers on those,” he said. “And so I think we’re just being a little bit more prudent.”

The new treatment offering is already paying off, showing a general appetite for weight loss and management programs. In February, the company’s earnings emphasized major growth in Hims & Hers’ telehealth services, which included the weight loss program along with mental health and dermatology. Dudum said on the earnings call that in 2025, each program could generate over $100 million in revenue for the company.

Ro also plans to continue growing the Body program. “We’re actively continuing to invest in the program. Our offering has expanded – we added Saxenda, Zepbound and expanded treatments to help with side effects management – and we’re continuing to improve the tech,” the spokesperson told Modern Retail. 

As long as weight loss drugs stay popular, direct-to-consumer demand for them will continue to rise.

Franklin Isacson, managing partner at Coefficient Capital, said the investment firm has been studying the growing impact of GLP-1 medications. Isacson speculates that there are a couple of reasons for people flocking to telemedicine-based weight loss treatments. “I understand why they’re all doing this,” he said. “Our most recent survey shows that over half of Americans are now aware of Ozempic,” he said of Coefficient’s March 2024 survey in partnership with The New Consumer, which reported 58% of respondents having heard of Ozempic.

As for direct-to-consumer startups capitalizing on the demand, Isacson said there will be some questionable players that will have to be regulated. “Is it ideal to get Ozempic through a pill mill online? No. Ideally, you have support and monitoring while taking it,” he said. “Hopefully that will be the case as more of these platforms pop up.”