Telehealth company Ro launches GLP-1 supply tracker to help patients navigate shortages

Telehealth company Ro on Wednesday launched a new tracker to help patients find a popular class of weight loss and diabetes drugs called GLP-1s amid shortages of those treatments in the U.S.

The supply tracker could be a valuable tool for many Americans scrambling to get their hands on GLP-1s, such as Novo Nordisk‘s weight loss injection Wegovy and diabetes drug Ozempic. Demand for those medications has far outpaced supply over the past year, forcing Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, the dominant players in the market, to invest heavily to scale up manufacturing.

The tracker aims to make GLP-1 supply information more transparent and accessible for everyone, regardless of whether they are enrolled in any of Ro’s programs. The company is one of several digital health companies offering weight loss programs that can give users a GLP-1 prescription and access to coaching and other services. 

The tracker is an interactive tool that gives people real-time supply information by drug, dose size and pharmacy location. Existing drug shortage databases, including one managed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, often don’t share localized data. 

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for patients and providers to get a snapshot of what’s available, what’s not, and do that in the fastest way,” Ro co-founder and CEO Zachariah Reitano told CNBC in an interview. 

He added that the GLP-1 shortages feel like a “national health-care crisis.” 

“I don’t think that people are fully registering that lifesaving and life-altering medications that could benefit well over 100 million people in the U.S. are currently on a significant shortage, and that patients every month are having trouble,” Reitano said.

Ro chose to make the tool free for anyone to use because a “basic inventory management system” for GLP-1s does not exist, making it a major contribution to the broader community that relies on those medications, according to Reitano. He added that opening up the tracker to everyone also makes it more likely for both Ro patients and people not enrolled in the company’s programs to access GLP-1s.

Anyone, including doctors, can submit an update to Ro’s tracker by filling out a report about availability or a shortage of a GLP-1 at a specific pharmacy in their area. Users have the option to automatically report that information to the FDA. 

Ro will update the tracker based on its own supply data, which is generated when the company’s patients log that they have successfully picked up their medication at a pharmacy. Ro will also update the tracker with the latest information from the FDA, according to the company.

In order to ensure that a medication is really in shortage, Reitano said the tracker factors in a combination of the speed, location and number of submissions. One report over a period of two months might not influence the tracker, for instance.

Reitano said Ro has been building the GLP-1 tracker for about two months. The company hasn’t been collaborating with the FDA directly, but providing the agency more real-time data can help it keep its shortage list as up to date as possible, he said.

This, in turn, means doctors will be able to make more informed choices about the best medication to prescribe to patients, Reitano said

“If that list is outdated to reality, then you’re going to write a prescription assuming that the patient is able to get access to it,” Reitano said. “They’re not or they might be able to start but not continue, and that causes disruptions in their treatment.” 

Individuals can sign up to receive automated email alerts about when a specific GLP-1 drug becomes available at a nearby pharmacy. The tracker also alerts patients about changes to the supply of a GLP-1 on the FDA’s drug shortage database. 

The alerts include instructions to request that a pharmacy transfer their prescription to another location with supply in stock. Any patient can also message Ro’s care team to transfer their prescriptions on their behalf.

Ro leans further into GLP-1s

Ro, founded as Roman in 2017, has been helping patients treat obesity since 2020. Reitano told CNBC in March that after the FDA approved Wegovy in 2021, patient inquiries about the medication began flooding in by the “tens of thousands.” 

As a result, the company launched a GLP-1 program called the Ro Body Program early last year.

Ro can prescribe medications like Ozempic and Wegovy, and it also offers compounded versions of GLP-1s if the branded versions are in shortage. Compounded GLP-1s are custom-made alternatives to brand drugs designed to meet a specific patient’s needs.

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Since launching the Body Program, Ro has become all too familiar with the challenges that can arise from a lack of supply. The company temporarily paused advertising for the program because of shortages last year, and it offered refunds and credits to patients who weren’t able to pick up their medication within 30 days of getting a prescription. 

Reitano said the company made more than 50,000 calls between July and August last year to try to transfer prescriptions to different pharmacies. 

Reitano hopes the tracker will make it easier for patients and providers to find GLP-1 supply and inform the FDA about shortages in real time, especially as demand for the medications grows even more. 

But he said his “biggest hope” is that Ro’s supply tracker will become “useless” three years from now as more GLP-1 supply comes onto the market and alleviates shortages. 

“That’s better for us, it’s better for patients, it’s better for the health-care system as well,” Reitano told CNBC.

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