Ozempic maker Novo Nordisk spent $11 million last year on medical “wine and dining.” Experts are calling the move a breach of doctor-patient trust

Experts are sounding the alarm after a report that popular weight-loss injectable maker Novo Nordisk spent $11 million last year on meals and travel for thousands of prescribers. Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP) (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Experts are sounding the alarm after a report that popular weight-loss injectable maker Novo Nordisk spent $11 million last year on meals and travel for thousands of prescribers.

The company has purchased more than 457,000 meals at a total price tag of more than $9 million to educate prescribers about Wegovy and other similar drugs it sells, known as GLP-1 agonists, according to a July 5 STAT report.

Popular weight-loss and diabetes injectables Wegovy and Ozempic, both Novo Nordisk products, mimic a hormone made in the gut after meals, called glucagon-like peptide-1, or GLP-1. The hormone helps regulate appetite and food intake by sending a signal to the brain that allows you to be more satisfied with fewer calories. Some GLP-1 agonists such as Wegovy are approved for the treatment of obesity in those with weight-related health conditions such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. Others like Ozempic are only approved for those with type 2 diabetes.

The STATs report cited data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is federally mandated to track donations worth $10 or more given by pharmaceutical and medical device companies to doctors, nurses and other prescribers.

In a statement, Novo Nordisk said Fortune follows the highest ethical standards, as well as all legal and regulatory requirements, in our interactions with the medical community and our clients.

Novo Nordisk believes responsible interaction and collaboration between industry and the medical community is good for patients and advances care and science, the company said.

A meal can be as small as a cup of coffee or a snack. Thus, multiple meals can be associated with an interaction, if it includes a drink and food. Meals are typically modest and usually provided to prescribers in the office, during the workday as part of an informational presentation or discussion, the company said. Last year, 94 percent of meals provided to health care workers were worth less than $25, he added.

Spurred by use of the drug among celebrities such as Elon Musk, demand for Wegovy, which can help overweight patients lose about 15 percent of their body weight, and similar drugs is on the rise. Novo Nordisk expects operating profits to rise nearly 20% this year, driven in part by sales of the drug, Bloomberg recently reported.

And with nearly three-quarters of American adults obese or overweight, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the potential market is huge.

It’s really shocking

It’s not uncommon for drug reps and prescribers to meet over meals, and marketing to doctors isn’t illegal in and of itself. Analysis of the statistics, however, found that nearly 12,000 prescribers received free food from Novo Nordisk more than a dozen times last year. More than 200 prescribers have received more than 50 free meals and snacks from the company, and one doctor has received 193 free meals numbers that are equal parts excessive and worrying, some experts argue.

The numbers are outrageous, says Ceci Connolly, president and CEO of the Alliance of Community Health Plans Fortune.

And it’s disheartening that few people seem outraged, he adds. We have become accustomed to big pharmaceutical companies spending absurd amounts of money on marketing and promotions and influencing drug dealing, both with doctors and with policy makers.

The millions Novo Nordisk has spent marketing its drugs to prescribers would be better used to further research into their potential side effects and long-term efficacy, Connolly says. Research published this spring suggested that GLP-1s could be putting patients at an elevated risk of a potentially fatal gastrointestinal condition requiring surgery.

It’s always nice to do business over a delicious meal, says Connolly. But the number of dinners and the amount of money spent on lunch and dinner by doctors, who tell us they are so awfully busy and exhausted, and then you look at the price of this drug is really mind boggling.

Dr. Nisha Patel, an obesity medicine physician in San Francisco, California who cares for transplant patients, tells Fortune he doesn’t see a problem with prescribers accepting a meal here and there from drug companies.

But whether it’s an everyday or regular meal, that’s something you need to think about, says Patel, who said he’s made it his mission to never accept gifts from drug companies. Is it worth the optics of how it might look on the outside?

That’s an especially important question post-COVID, with confidence in the healthcare system seemingly at an all-time low, he adds. We doctors and healthcare professionals must do what we can to restore that faith in science. Prescribers who accept gifts, even if those gifts don’t influence their clinical decision-making, make it difficult.

How to find your doctor

Patel encourages patients to research their providers on the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ open payment website to see the value, type, and number of gifts they’ve accepted from drug companies and which ones.

But not all patients have the skills or Internet access to research their providers. In fact, many of the most vulnerable don’t, Connolly points out.

People have always considered doctors a trusted source, he added. But if you now find that your trusted source spends more time with drug manufacturer representatives than with you, that really brings into question the trust factor and the relationship we’ve historically had with doctors.

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