Eli Lilly and Company announced this week the launch of an online telehealth platform called Lilly Direct that will allow patients to access some of the pharmaceutical giant’s brand-name prescription drugs through an online pharmacy service.^1 The service initially covers Eli Lilly’s recently approved obesity drug called tirzepatide, sold under the brand name Mounjaro, as well as another promising obesity medication called Zepbound currently under FDA review.^2
The launch of Lilly Direct comes amid rising demand for weight loss drugs like Mounjaro and an increasing shift towards direct-to-consumer healthcare options. However, Lilly warned patients and doctors that these drugs have risks and should not be used solely for cosmetic weight loss.^3
Surging Interest in Obesity Treatments Drives New DTC Service
Lilly cited the “urgency and demand” from patients seeking obesity medicines like Mounjaro as a key reason for offering direct telehealth services.^4 Many doctors have waiting lists of patients hoping to try Mounjaro after seeing viral before-and-after photos showing dramatic weight loss results in some patients. However, limited access and stricter prescription requirements have made these drugs difficult to obtain.^5
Lilly’s chief scientific and medical officer, Daniel Skovronsky, said Lilly wanted to improve access by giving patients an easier way to speak with doctors and get prescriptions. But he emphasized that all patients require proper screening and monitoring while using the company’s drugs.
“While Lilly Direct will help make the process of getting care from a health care provider and receiving medicine more seamless, obesity is a disease that requires proper screening, monitoring and follow up from physicians,” Skovronsky said.^6
Other major drugmakers like Novo Nordisk also offer competing obesity drugs, while companies like Calibrate Health provide direct telehealth and prescription services. So Lilly also stands to benefit from finding new revenue streams amid rising competitive threats.
Lilly’s share price rose nearly 3% on the news as analysts noted the platform’s potential both to generate sales and improve patient loyalty. “Lilly is counting on its obesity meds to help soothe investor worries over the impending loss of diabetes drug revenue,” noted Endpoints News analyst John Carroll.^7
Mounjaro Demand Takes Off After Dramatic Weight Loss Claims
Lilly’s launch of Lilly Direct responds primarily to runaway consumer demand for tirzepatide (Mounjaro), an injected medicine originally approved to treat type 2 diabetes. Scientists discovered the glucose-lowering medication can also produce substantial appetite reduction and weight loss averaging 15-20% in clinical trials.^8
In 2022, typical year’s worth of Mounjaro prescriptions were filled in the first two months after approval based on social media buzz and glowing testimonials about weight loss. Appointment waitlists to get prescribed Mounjaro stretch out 6 months in some regions.
Table: Mounjaro Costs and Effectiveness
|Avg. Weight Loss*
*Over 68 weeks in clinical trials
Many doctors remain hesitant to prescribe weight loss medications, and insurance rarely covers Mounjaro for obesity treatment rather than diabetes. So patients rushed to locales like Southern California where “Mounjaro clinics” promised prescriptions. Some doctors charge $250 or more for quick telehealth visits culminating in an expensive Mounjaro script.^9
In a research note, investment bank SVB Securities predicted Mounjaro alone could generate over $25 billion yearly within 10 years. But realizing that potential depends on making treatment access easier given many barriers.^10
So Lilly Direct looks to capture some revenue while improving convenience through telehealth screenings, e-prescriptions and home delivery.
What Comes Next: Caution Over Off-Label ‘Cosmetic’ Use
In conjunction with the Lilly Direct announcement, Eli Lilly management issued an open letter warning patients and doctors that Mounjaro and Zepbound should not be prescribed solely for cosmetic weight loss purposes once approved.
The company promised to crack down on off-label promotion after reports emerged that some unscrupulous prescribers advertise Mounjaro specifically as a “weight loss wonder drug” at truck stops or strip malls rather than medical offices.^11
“Like all potent medications, there are health risks to using these medicines inappropriately,” the letter states. “We therefore stand firmly against the promotion of Mounjaro or candidate [drugs] for cosmetic weight loss.”^12
Like any drug producing profound effects on appetite and metabolism, tirzepatide carries risks like pancreatitis and gallbladder problems requiring monitoring. And scientists still don’t fully understand the long-term effects making obesity drugs one of few therapies where patients often stop taking once they reach target weight.
So experts expect regulators will take cues from Lilly’s screening procedures and prescribing safeguards implemented through Lilly Direct. The service could set an example for responsible access improving convenience while preventing misuse.^13
“Lilly’s warning reinforces why you need to check with a doctor before taking something primarily to lose weight or treat what’s seen as a lifestyle problem,” said cardiologist Dr. Ruth Pearson. “With any drug and any condition, you should start by trying to address root causes without medicine using nutrition or therapy.”
But many advocates hope easier access leads more to seek scientifically-validated treatments after failed attempts through diet alone, especially with rates of obesity and diabetes recently reaching all-time highs.
What This Means for the Future Obesity Treatment
Lilly’s moves comes at an inflection point in the treatment of obesity. Where expensive prescription drugs were once viewed skeptically, advancements like tirzepatide demonstrate pharmacological therapies can deliver profound weight reduction rivaling the most effective bariatric surgeries.^14
This emerging class of medicines has potential to fundamentally reshape obesity medicine the way statins transformed cardiovascular disease prevention. More convenient access like Lilly Direct offers could finally turn the tide on the worsening obesity epidemic.
But doctors remain divided whether prescribing intensive medical therapy makes sense for moderate obesity with lifestyle changes still the consensus first-line treatment. And at over $1,300 monthly for high-dose injections, costs loom as the biggest barrier to access especially if insurers continue denying coverage.
So while analysts see blockbuster potential for Lilly’s pipeline of obesity assets, realizing this promise hinges on setting realistic patient expectations. Obesity drugs work but only in conjunction with improved nutrition, exercise and behavioral modifications for sustained success.
Striking this balance means obesity pharmacotherapy seems poised for prime time at last. But how extensively doctors choose to prescribe amid calls for judicious use could determine whether game-changing medications like Mounjaro live up to their lofty promise to bend the obesity cost curve.
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